Notorious French mercenary Bob Denard died Sunday in Paris, aged 78. The cause of death was not immediately clear though he had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Denard was the quintessential soldier of fortune and led several mutinies across Africa during the decolonisation era from the 1960s though to the 1990s. He was twice convicted in France for trying to overthrow governments in Benin and the Comoros. Yet Denard also had the support of the French secret service over the course of his colourful career in he was involved in a dozen wars and coup attempts in the Congo, Angola, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Benin, and the Comoros. He also worked for the Shah in Iran and the British in Yemen. Denard was the role model for Frederick Forsyth's mercenary in "The Dogs of War".
Bob Denard was born in 1929, in Bordeaux, France. His birth name was Gilbert Bourgeaud and Denard was one of a dozen aliases he assumed. His father was a non-commissioned officer in the French colonial army, and Bob followed his father into the military. In the 1950s he served in Indochina and then worked with Morocco's police force before the kingdom gained independence from France.
By 1957 Denard had joined the French secret service and was posted to Algeria where he worked in vain to stop the long-running Algerian War of Independence. By now he was working for Jacques Foccart, head of the Françafrique, the group set up by French president Charles de Gaulle to organise covert actions in Africa. It is alleged although never proven he also worked for the British MI6.
His mercenary activities began in 1961. The resource-rich province of Katanga led by Moise Tshombe was then attempting to break free of the newly independent Congo and mercenary leader Roger Faulques hired Denard to train his troops. Here Denard earned his reputation for ruthless efficiency when faced with poorly equipped, poorly trained African troops. He quickly earned the nickname for his band of former European soldiers as "les affreux" (“the horrible ones”). When the Katanga rebellion collapsed, Denard and his affreux fled to Portuguese Angola. Later that year Denard popped up in North Yemen where he supported royalist tribes people in a civil war against a newly installed Nasserist government.
Denard was a fervent anti-communist who worked for several dictators and monarchs. He returned to the Congo in 1963, this time fighting for the government side and Chinese and Cuban-backed communist rebels. In 1964, he was believed to be involved (but is not mentioned explicitly in US declassified documents) in the Belgian-American mission to rescue white civilian hostages captured by rebels in the Central Congo city of Stanleyville.
For the next ten years Denard criss-crossed Africa and Asia including a stint working for Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi of Iran. He suffered at least four serious injuries in battle, one of which, in Congo, left him with a limp for the rest of his life. In 1975 he made his first adventure into a country that was to shape the rest of his life – the Comoros. The East African island nation gained its independence from France that year and Ahmed Abdallah became the country’s first president.
Within a month, Denard ousted him in an armed coup. But barely three years later Denard reinstated Abdallah in another coup in response to the new government’s anti-French policies. Denard held true power behind the scenes, married a Comoros hotel receptionist (his sixth wife) and lived a lavish lifestyle for the next decade. In 1989 President Abdallah was assassinated in a dispute with Denard’s men. After weeks of turmoil, the French military sent in 3,000 men to seize control from Denard. He fled to South Africa, where he lived for three years.
In 1993, he faced charges for his involvement in a failed coup in Marxist-controlled Benin in 1977. He was found guilty but had his sentence suspended. In 1995 he was back in the Comoros for one more coup. He led 30 mercenaries in an overnight raid to topple the regime of President Said Djohar. However the alarmed French sent another force in remove him from power. He was captured and was taken to Paris and jailed while awaiting trial.
Finally in 1999 he was back in front of a French court to account for his long-running involvement in the Comoros. Denard was found guilty of the 1995 coup but acquitted of the 1989 Ahmed Abdallah assassination. "I was a soldier. I was never a killer," he told the court, teary-eyed. In his autobiography, Denard said that "often I didn't exactly have a green light from the French authorities, but I went on the amber." Denard was survived by eight children.