What Nanny Didn’t Tell Me

Bernard Porter

  • Cry Havoc by Simon Mann
    John Blake, 351 pp, £19.99, November 2011, ISBN 978 1 84358 403 2

In Frederick Forsyth’s The Dogs of War, Sir James Manson hires a mercenary called ‘Cat’ Shannon to stage a coup in the tiny West African state of Zangaro – Equatorial Guinea thinly disguised – and replace its tyrannical president with one who will, perhaps, be less tyrannical, and will definitely grant Sir James the highly profitable platinum-mining concession he wants. The operation goes like clockwork – no problems, no mistakes – though there’s a twist at the end. Simon Mann’s Cry Havoc might seem like a copy of this scenario – same place, roughly the same plot, thirty years later – but it’s much more fun because Mann’s attempted coup turned out to be, in his words, ‘a swashbuckling fuck-up’.

Mistrust, quarrels, betrayals, defective intelligence, security leaks, mechanical breakdowns, changes of plan (there were five altogether) and money troubles beset it at every stage. Mann himself didn’t even make it to Equatorial Guinea: he was arrested en route in March 2004 at Harare airport, where he and his men were supposed to pick up their weapons. He was imprisoned in Chikurubi prison for three years and then extradited to Equatorial Guinea, tried and sentenced to 34 years. That terrified him; he was convinced that President Obiang intended to eat his testicles. In the event he served only 14 months in better conditions than in Zimbabwe before being pardoned by Obiang and flown back to the UK in November 2009. Since then one assumes he has been busy working on this book, which started out as a ‘love letter’ to his wife, Amanda – ‘the Bitch of War as she now likes to call herself’ – while he was in jail.

Mann’s account doesn’t add much to what we know about the attempted coup; in some respects it tells us less than Adam Roberts’s excellent The Wonga Coup.[*] Roberts names more names than Mann does, including Jeffrey Archer’s (he may have donated money), and gives some broad hints as to the identity of Mann’s equivalent of Sir James Manson, here just called ‘the Boss’, who is supposed to have masterminded the whole affair. Apparently, Mann has ‘legal reasons’ for omitting all this – we’re told that two reported conversations with Margaret Thatcher have been cut on similar grounds.

Her son, Mark, isn’t spared, however, mainly because in 2005 he admitted complicity in the affair as part of a plea bargain in South Africa; and because of Mann’s animus against him. Thatcher claimed that he bought a helicopter for Mann on the understanding that it was to be used as an air ambulance (or some such: he kept changing his story), and knew nothing about the plot until the very end. Mann isn’t having any of this. Thatcher was in on it from the start:

He nearly bites my hand off … Not only does he want to share the spoils of our EG adventure. He wants to play an active role … He can become ‘one of the boys’. SAS … Mark thinks that the SAS walks on water … I think he’s lonely. He doesn’t seem to have many friends. So he’s seized upon me.

He also promised to try to bail Mann out if he got ‘collared’: ‘Thatcher has the money, and the political connections – in Zimbabwe, South Africa and the UK – to help me … We even shake hands on it.’ It is his failure to redeem this pledge that upsets Mann as he languishes in jail. Cry Havoc is partly his act of revenge against Thatcher, and the others who failed him in his hour of need, including the Boss. Readers who come to the book less for its account of the coup than for what it says about Thatcher won’t be disappointed: he doesn’t come out of it well.

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[*] R.W. Johnson wrote about The Wonga Coup in the LRB of 16 November 2006.