"I Felt Like I Was in a Humphrey Bogart Movie": A British Merc Joins the French Foreign Legion
A BRITISH MERC, SOLDIER OF FORTUNE, AND A FIREFIGHT
A British Merc, SOF, and Two American “Foreign Volunteers” Fight off Terrorists in Rhodesia
From SOF Archives
A War of Hired Guns
The Rhodesian Bush War pitting a white-dominated government against a black communist-sponsored terrorist insurgency launched RKB and his adventurous gun-toting comrades in what became SOF signature on the ground—hands-on combat photography and journalism around the globe.
When RKB heard about how the terrorist leader Robert Mugabe was going to steal the elections in 1980, he decided SOF had to be there during the election to watch the white Rhodesian government crash and burn.
Though Brown and a few of his unpaid staff of editors had made several trips to the Rhodesian war zones, it wasn’t until 1980 that SOF had the funds to send a team to cover the upcoming elections, which would determine if the small, besieged country would elect a moderate black–white government or a terrorist dictatorship.
“We decided with the Rhodesian elections in 1980, that SOF should have a sizable presence, especially since all of our contacts and sources felt that after the elections the whole country would go up in flames. If the inevitable occurred, we knew that no stuffy Rhodesian bureaucrat would be in a position to prevent us from linking up with a unit not choosy about where a few extra guns came from,” RKB recalls the events that led to SOF’s first and last Rhodesian firefight.
The Bush War, or the War of Chimurenga was the most exotic of the many prolonged and vicious African wars of decolonization that glamorized the 20th century merc. It was a civil war that relied on hired guns, a war of terror for both white and black Rhodesians to match the current war on terror, although in a limited theater. It was a non-conventional, racial war of independence shattered by betrayals, whether blacks against whites or blacks against blacks or whites against both.
In addition to Vietnam vets, fighters from all over the globe, from Europe to Australia to South America to America, Canada, and Africa, itching for a good old fight against a bunch of savages terrorizing farmers signed up. Rhodesian Army recruiting posters splashed in the pages of SOF magazine and on the walls of merc recruiting offices lured those of all ages hankering for a risky adventure. Foreign volunteers trotted off to Rhodesia to fight the Commies who were supporting the terrorists or just for a good fight. That is where the British merc and former French Legionnaire Jerry O’Brien comes in.
Straight from a Merc’s Mouth
I figured the best way to get the story of the fall of the white Rhodesian government was to get it from mercs who had fought with the Ian Smith government in the last two years of its existence. They witnessed as Mugabe stole the election. I went off to London to meet up with my favorite British mercenary, Jerry O’Brien. He was with RKB and company in the first and last SOF firefight in Rhodesia the day before the Ian Smith government fell.
RKB had hooked me up with Jerry when I was studying law in London years after the Rhodesian war ended. I clearly remember the first time I saw him. I was in a dinky room on the 10th floor of the student accommodation close to King’s College on the Strand in London. He phoned the first day I arrived at the dorm from South Africa before I had even unpacked my scanty belongings. I had no wheels and he graciously offered his. I glanced out the window, and ten flights below I saw a tough looking man, impeccably attired in well pressed military green khaki shirt and pants, standing tall and straight, the stance of a long time soldier. The French Foreign Legion tolerated no sloppiness. He was a stark contrast to all of the torn jean and sloppy t-shirt Americans, including me, who ran around that neighborhood, or the stuffed shirt Brits choking in their ties and suits walking down the streets with their famed pompous air of great importance. Not that Jerry was any less of a proud Brit, but his air of self-assurance came from having proven his stones—over and over.
A Former Colonial Empire and a Merc Haven
Around 5’8”, he was muscular, with strong, full features, cautious smoky blue eyes always on guard, and a loud contagious laugh to match his keen sense of humor. In his characteristically loyal way, he figured he was doing his old buddy RKB a one-time favor and was anxious to get it over with. I, in turn, still feverish from a reaction to some malaria pills, wanted to get the meeting over with. But we got on and he got a kick out of the fact that I was totally intrigued with his mysterious world. After all, where else could you meet up with so many adventure-seeking, modern day crusading swashbucklers in one city? London was full of them, and Jerry was well connected in their old boy network, especially that of the most notorious of all merc units, the elite French Foreign Legion.
We didn’t talk much politics, although we met up nearly every day for several months until I headed back to the United States. At the time he worked for some fat cat Arab sheik whose over indulgent family had taken over a good part of one of the five star Arab-owned hotels close to Hyde Park. Neither of us really gave a flaming fig about most political situations. We were just restless. He dwelt on the adventures rather than the rough times, with an enviable ability to “turn the pages of each chapter without looking back” with no regrets.
He was single and seemed unattached to anyone except his immediate family, for which he felt responsible. We hung out in pub after pub after work and school in East London and most weekends. He sipped slowly on cider to remain fully alert and on guard. Sobriety had become second nature to this survivor of many risky situations. I had realized for some time after hanging out with the most successful mercs—those who survived hard combat--that their sense of awareness was very keen. Drinking was usually for private partying with friends, debunking the stereotypes of mercs as seedy drunken misfits. The stuffy West-Enders did not tread in the East End except to send their limo drivers to pick up meals from pub or pizza hut rumored to have better food than that of the West End or for some other self-serving reason.
I remember going to a grim, clandestine basement somewhere to meet some hired guns hiding out from the law or from some hit man. The furtive multi-national soldiers of fortune had outrageous stories that we could not repeat then nor can I do so now. It was there and in the pubs that I heard first hand stories of merc activities in South Africa, Djibouti, Asia, and many other of their stomping grounds, usually in a former British or French colony. They had many stories about Rhodesia, including SOF’s firefight. For the Brits, Rhodesia was lost by the political mucky mucks just as Algeria was lost for the French and Vietnam for the Americans.
So I went to London this August to get his story. As predictable as ever, Jerry phoned the first night and showed up, once more impeccably attired, standing tall and proud, with the same eagerness to join in one more venture, this time taking part in helping chronicle SOF escapades. Still single and carefree, he had not lost his sense of humor and spontaneous laughter.
The Road to the French Foreign Legion
His experience in the French Foreign Legion had left this Legionnaire itching for some challenging firefight. He planned his journey to Rhodesia to get his adrenalin fix six months before he got out.
His Before 40 Bucket List
Jerry joined the Legion at the age of 25 to fulfill two of three goals before he turned 40. Those far-off goals he had decided after he graduated with the U.S. equivalent of high school at the age of 15 and he never wavered. One was that of joining a military. The second was to kick butt in some combat zone and the third was to see everyplace in the world that he ever wanted to see, whether it was the Taj Mahal, the Amazon, the famous volcanoes of Peru, Mount Kilimanjaro, the Golden Gate Bridge, and of course another wonder of the world, Las Vegas.
When Jerry was in his early teens, his Dad had two shops, a green grocer and a news agency. Jerry worked for his old man until he was 18, when the elder O’brien sold the grocery. The tough looking, fearless, macho and physically fit teen had no trouble finding gigs being a film extra. His first movie was Oliver. He filled in as a second for many films and had odd jobs in between. At 21, he became a longshoreman, the minimum age for the position. Since his father had connections, he was able to get him on the hard-to-get job.
“Early ‘70s London was a party town, so I grew long hair and partied. And partied. I put off my goals and then at 25, I decided it was now or never if I am ever going to do it,” he recalled. So he decided to join the military and testing his mettle in combat.
He took his partying spirit with him, from what I understand from those who served with him in Rhodesia.
The Imposing Fort That Was the FFL Recruitment Office
“I thought about joining the British Army, but I didn't fancy that. I wanted a complete change of life. I saw a television program on the elite French Foreign Legion, so I went to Paris to check it out. I tried to talk to a gendarme who didn't understand English, but he figured out what I was up to. So he pointed to a police station, and there on the wall was an advertisement for the French Foreign Legion. I pointed to the poster. They wrote down the address for the French Foreign Legion recruitment center,” Jerry recalled.
“They told me to go to the metro d’Chateau, and off I went to check out the recruitment process. I went down to Chateau de Vincennes. I expected a dingy office, but what I found was the infamous colossal castle where Mata Hari was shot. (Whether guilty or not, history can’t decide, but the execution of the Dutch exotic dancer and seductress has glamorized the sultry suspected spy..ed). It was an impressive fort run by the regular army built in the 1840s as one of the garrisons designed to protect Paris. The recruiting officer didn't understand me either, but he pointed to a table that had a whole assortment of manuals in all different languages. There was a sergeant that phoned someone who could speak English and he took me to his office.
“He explained all about how I was to go about it at a regular recruitment office. I went back to London and made a date for signing up. I never told anyone. When the time came, I just left to Paris and signed up. Once I got to Paris, they took me down for a medical to see if I was fit. Every Thursday they took the recruits down to the nerve center of the Legion 20 miles outside of Marseille in Aubagne. They keep you there in a compound for about two weeks to find out if you had been a bad boy and what you had done.
“A lot of guys showed up without a passport. At the time, once you got to France, you could sell your passport for a lot of money for those rogues wanting a pirated passport. The FFL said you didn’t have to have an ID. All they could do was take your fingerprints. They give themselves two weeks to find out who you are. I had a passport, so it was no big deal. Some they questioned for a few days. They would ask them if they were criminals. If one doesn't tell them, how can they find out? A lot of criminals got in. But some were not so clever. They tell you ‘tell us, if you have done anything we will protect you’, but if you tell about a criminal history, they kick you out. If you can get past that you are in.
“ They give psychological, grueling physical endurance and medical tests. From there you are put on a boat to Corsica,” he continued.
I Had Stepped Into a Humphrey Bogart Movie
“My Legion name was John Obens,” Jerry said.
Not very imaginative, the FFL decides names with the recruit’s first and last initials. Currently, after three years you can apply to get your family name back, but you have to have birth certificates. The minimum tour was five years, then after that the Legionnaire could sign up for a six-month tour at a time if he wanted to stay in France, but for two years if he wanted to go abroad. Whether married or not, everyone is enlisted as a single man.
No one knew where he was. His parents only knew that he had disappeared. Now Jerry was a loyal son. I met his parents when I was in London and they doted on their only son. No wonder, he took care of both of them until their death.
After six weeks, once in Corsica, he got around to sending them a postcard.
There are two basic training camps, one in Bonifacio and one in Corte. The training is intense, including field training, mountain training in the Chalet at Formiguiere in the French Pyrenees, and advanced technical training.
“After 16 weeks of basic training you get assigned to your regiment.” Jerry recalled. “Mine was the 2ème Régiment Étranger de Parachutistes, 2ème REP, the Airborne Paratroopers Regiment stationed in Calvi, Corsica. I served three years there with a yearly four-month deployment to Djibouti, a French colony at the time. I wanted to finish up my two years off the continent, so I asked to be deployed permanently two years to Djibouti. It was terrific. I was stepping into a Humphrey Bogart film. I finished the five and a half years there, but I had not fought in a war. I had been in a few trouble spots, so I wanted to go to Rhodesia and kick some ass. I came out of the Legion in November of 1978. I figured I would have Christmas at home and then I would go off to Rhodesia.
A Disguised Invitation: Get Your Ass Down Here
“I wrote a letter to the Rhodesian Army and they wrote back saying,
‘We are not allowed to recruit soldiers outside of the borders of our country, but your interest has been more than appreciated,’ or basically ‘get your ass down here.’ There was an organization in London called the Anglo Rhodesian Society, and if you went to them they would pay half your airfare. Which is what I did. I went down there with my comrade Mark Sullivan, another Legionnaire. He was six months behind me in the Legion, and we had planned it just before I got out.
“So I went down to Salisbury, to the army recruiting center. They asked us what regiment we wanted to go in. We only knew of the Rhodesian Light Infantry, the RLI. But the RLI would not take us because they said our ages were against us. I was an old 31 and Sullivan was 27. They would not even see us or talk to us. I just assume some lieutenant was an idiot. The driver assigned by the army to take us down from the recruiting office to the regiment had told the recruiters that he had brought two ex-Legionnaires and the lieutenant refused to see us.
Hard Action and Dead Terrorists
“The driver felt real bad about that, so he told us that the armored car regiment had an American in command and he was looking for drivers. That is when we met our new Commander, Darrell Winkler, a highly decorated Vietnam vet who had worked his way through the ranks from sergeant to captain in Vietnam. The Rhodesians had all the foreign volunteers join the regular army. They expect officers to go through their officer training school, but since Winkler was an officer in the U.S. Army, he became an officer in the Rhodesian Army straight on. The Rhodesian army paid all the foreign volunteers just like they paid the regular Rhodesian soldiers. Winkler snapped us up and we were in the armored car regiment. I had signed up for three years, but my first year there was the last year of the war. That was fine, because in that year we saw a fair bit of action, with firefight after firefight.”
By that, I figured this matter-of-fact, no bull guy meant serious action. I asked him the totally insensitive question of how many terrorists or bad guys he had killed down there.
“You mean how many I saw go down?”
He told me. It was a lot.