The Rhodesian Bush War was a vicious civil conflict that took place in the unrecognized country of Rhodesia during 1964-1979.
The conflict was marked by the Rhodesian government’s willingness to rely on so-called ‘Rhodesian Bush War mercenaries’ – white volunteers from overseas – who went to Rhodesia out of a sense of adventure, anti-Communist sentiment, or both.
A good deal of these mercenaries became hugely infamous during their time in Rhodesia, whether for their combat prowess, their ruthlessness, or both. It’s these soldiers of fortune that we’re going to look at today.
It’s time to polish your FN Fal and load up, because we’re about to meet the 4 of the most infamous Rhodesian Bush War mercenaries.
John Alan Coey
John Alan Coey was a former US Marine and an ardent anti-Communist who was quick to enter the Rhodesian Bush War on the side of the government. He also holds the dubious distinction of being the first American to die in the war.
Coey had become a US Marine during the course of his studies at college, but the day after graduation, he discharged himself and made his way to Rhodesia, stating that the US government was fatally compromised by “internationalists, collectivists and communists”.
He believed that by fighting in Rhodesia, he would be able to best serve what he termed “Western interests”.
”There was the adventure. There was also the money, though not a lot. But there was also some idealism. We had our code of ethics, our code of honor.”– Bob Denard, a former Rhodesian Bush War mercenary in a 1993 interview.
Coey joined the Rhodesian Special Air Service and was on track to receive a commission there; however, he fell from grace after publishing a manifesto called “The Myth of Anti-American Communism”. It was stridently anti-establishment, and the army deemed it subversive.
Coey subsequently became a combat medic and became loosely affiliated with a group of American expats nicknamed the Crippled Eagles.
He was, despite his extreme political views, noted for his bravery. He was killed after being shot in the head while trying to pull two injured comrades into cover.
Coey kept a journal of his experiences. It was published posthumously by his mother under the title A Martyr Speaks.
Major Mike Williams
One of the oldest foreign combatants in the Rhodesian Bush War, Major Mike Williams was a veteran of several wars and a decorated Green Beret.
A polyglot, Williams spoke Russian and Spanish well and had worked as an interpreter at the Soviet Repatriation Commission in Vienna. His story was well documented by his friend, the author Robin Moore.
Outside of Moore’s hagiography of him, Williams was presented as an ardent racist who believed in the superiority of the white man.
Williams’ unit, Grey’s Scouts, was also accused of brutality and war crimes, including torture and murder.
Williams himself disputed this, but at least one instance of brutality was recorded by a Pulitzer-prize-winning photographer who took a picture of a black man who was about to be dragged behind the horse of one scout by his neck.
Williams is believed to have survived the Bush War; what became of him after that is unknown.
Frank P. Battaglia
Frank P. Battaglia was a native Floridian who had spent much of his life in New York City. A Vietnam veteran, he had been twice wounded in the conflict after two VC ambushes in which a great many of his squad perished.
Battaglia went on to serve with the Spanish Foreign Legion. After this, he decided to join the Rhodesian Bush War and relocated to the unrecognized country with his wife in tow.
He joined the Rhodesian SAS while his wife worked for the Rhodesian Air Force packing parachutes.
Battaglia was killed in action on March 6th, 1978, when he was shot by a Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army soldier. It is unknown whether or not his body was retrieved following his death.
Battaglia’s views are not a matter of public record, and so his motivations for joining the Rhodesian Bush War remain unknown.
He was known to be an avid poker player; when not on duty, he would teach the younger Rhodesian soldiers to play.
Frenchman Bob Denard was an infamous African bush mercenary who enjoyed a long and notorious career outside of his time in the Rhodesian Bush War.
While in Rhodesia, he was a member of the infamous 7 Independent Company (French: 7ème Compagnie Indépendante), a loosely affiliated group of Francophone mercenaries who operated for a time during the Bush War.
Involvement in Rhodesia
Denard, along with the other francophone soldiers in the company, failed to properly integrate with the Rhodesian comrades and commanding officers.
Many of them were under the impression that they would be receiving a high wage due to their status as foreign mercenaries, and so they were disappointed when they received no more than their Rhodesian colleagues.
“It’s true, I wasn’t a saint. You can’t be in combat. But I would not still be here if I had done truly reprehensible things.”– Bob Denard, Hired Gun for Coups, Is Dead at 78.
Denard and the other Frenchmen were also disappointed by the fact that they were paid in Rhodesian dollars; they were unable to exchange large amounts of this, and foreign banks were often unwilling to accept it.
7 Independent Company became hugely unpopular due to their harsh treatment of black villagers in the conflict zone and rapidly found themselves without friends in Rhodesia. Many deserted, and Denard himself left to carry out a coup in the Comoros.
Life After Rhodesia
Denard lived a long life and became one of the most famous mercenaries to have been involved in the Bush War.
He was later sentenced to prison time due to his involvement in coups in Africa; because he had developed Alzheimer’s, however, he didn’t serve any of his terms.
Denard died in 2007. A later film, Mister Bob, was based on his life. The trailer for the movie can be seen below:
Rhodesian Bush War Mercenaries Were as Common as They Were Controversial
These four men were hardly the only foreign mercenaries involved in the Rhodesian Bush War, and the participation of foreigners in the war was as commonplace as it was controversial.
Nevertheless, details of many of these men are lost to the ether, good record-keeping not being a priority in the now-non-existent country.