The Strange Journey of Costas Georgiou aka "Colonel Callan"

“Colonel” Tony Callan was the “nom de guerre” of Costas Georgiou, a young man of Greek Cypriot extraction, then living in London, who, having enlisted into the Parachute Regiment, and been dishonourably discharged following a convicton for robbing a Northern Ireland Post Office during a tour of duty in that province, found employment and fame and /or infamy as a mercenary in the civil war which raged in Angola in 1975/76.

Following 500 years under Portugese rule, Angola was granted independence in 1975. This was doubtless good news to the various Angolans who had waged a long and bloody guerilla war against Portugal, and probably even better news to the thousands of Portugese men of military service age who were liable for call up into the military, especially given that the draft laws in force in Portugal at that time rendered a man eligible for no less than three separate call ups during his life, provided that he was of military age, and fit.

It is not clear at what juncture Costas Georgiou became “Colonel” Tony Callan, probably just before or soon after they reached Angola. It was probably at about the same time that he became a colonel. For those who wish to research this subject further, “Firepower” by Dave Tompkins and Chris Dempster, both of whom served in this ill starred enterprise.

I will not comment on it’s accuracy, suffice to say that both authors were there at the time. After some initial success, superior numbers (some estimates give 40,000 as the Cuban strength) and overwhelming firepower, in particular the Stalin Organs, with which the Cuban artillery units were equipped, began to tell. These lorry mounted multi barreled rocket launchers were weapons, which, as any old Wehrmacht footslogger would recall, not only blew apart men and materiel, but also morale and the will to fight.

Callan, as I shall now call him, made a good start, appearing to be very competent, giving a good account of himself in contacts with Cubans and MPLA. Here again, a quote from John Stockwell. “He turned a couple of incidents around very dramatically and we were very impressed. And then almost instantly it turned out he was humiliating Zairian paracommando leaders. He would strip their clothes off and have them beaten publicly. He was executing people.

Nor were Callan’s own men immune to his brutality.

Following a botched counter attack against the Cubans following a contact at a town called Maquela. During this counter attack, some of Callan’s men, no doubt inexperienced and probably outgunned, certainly confused by the fog of war, attacked one of their own armoured vehicles. Callan decided on an exemplary disciplinary measure. He lined up fourteen of the hapless, mercenaries, and shot them. This is the incident which, when it made headlines in the British press in UK, earned him the notoriety with which his name is still asossciated So what kind of troops did Callan have to try to stem the tide? By all accounts, not of a high quality. John Stockwell again. “You don’t get a good disciplined force when you’ve grabbed people off the streets to form a military. Two of the mercenaries …… were literally street sweepers in London who were recruited off the street.” As already stated, some absentees and deserters from HM Forces were known to be trying to enlist, whether seekling escape or excitement, only they would know.

To say that many were raw and inexperienced is probably the kindest statement to describe them.

Finally, outgunned and far outnumbered, the mercenaries and their FNLA comrades in arms were forced to give ground. Some of the mercenaries managed to escape, some, Callan included, were captured. The FNLA men probably melted back into the population, in the manner of guerrilla fighters everywhere.

For Callan and the other captured mercenaries, a show trial was not long delayed. In Luanda, the thirteen men were put on trial. The MPLA had obviously learned from their Soviet and Cuban “advisers”. All were found guilty, as was to be expected. Interestingly, Callan’s sister, Panayiota Georgiou was allowed into Angola to both monitor the trial and visit her brother, Costas. She is quoted as saying in an interview given at the time, “He is standing up very well to this ordeal“.

And so he was. So well, in fact, that his Angolan interegators despaired of breaking him. He stood up in court, and said that whatever his men had done, had been on his orders. At this juncture, fate took a hand, and Callan’s sister actually began going out with one of the chief Angolan prosecuting interagators. Despairing of breaking Callan, the interogation team tried one last ploy. Returning to his cell one day day, Callan entered to find, facing him in the cell, the freshly disinterred, by now well decomposed, body of one of his mercenary comrades who had been killed earlier. This, it seems, had the desired effect of turning Callan from a defiant, even arrogant prisoner, into a shattered man. Found guilty, he, Andrew McKenzie, (another former British Army soldier) and John Derek Barker, were sentenced to death. Also sentenced to death, was Daniel Gearhart, an American. He had been but a few days in the country, and was, apparently, found guilty of advertising himself as a mercenary in “Soldier of Fortune” magazine. They were shot to death before a firing squad on July 10th 1976. The other nine men received jail sentences of between 16 to 30 years. Ernesto Teixeira da Silva, one of the five presiding judges in the trial, is quoted as saying, “Africa feels mercenaries are a danger to the people, the children, and to the security of the state. They spread fear, shame, and hatred in Africa.” Given that the civil war in Angola has but recently ceased, and the widespread ethnic warfare and butchery still raging in most of the newly emergent African states, the sentences would appear to have served as no deterrent whatsoever. And , in a really unusual twist, Panayiota Georgiou, also called “Blondie”, eventually married the man who helped execute her brother. An unexpected outcome, even by modern African standards!

A last word from John Banks, the man who recruited these men. He is quoted thus. “I don’t feel sorry for them. They are soldiers, they knew what they were doing. I would do it again.” Who said comradeship and sentiment are dead ?