Biafra: The Mercenaries

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Colonel Steiner, 38, has been soldiering for most of his life. In the final days of World War II, he fought as a Hitler Youth in Germany's last-ditch defense against the advancing U.S. Army. After the German surrender, he enlisted in the French Foreign Legion. He spent seven years in Indo-China, an enfant terrible who was at least twice busted from sergeant to private. At Dienbienphu, he was wounded and lost the use of a lung. After five years of service in Algeria, a spell with the S.A.O. and a suspended sentence, he was living in Paris last year when he heard of Biafra. He set out to serve Ojukwu's cause, first as a "technical adviser," then as company commander, finally as boss of the Fourth Commando Brigade.

Red and Green. He has taken the Legion with him to Africa. Legion marches blare from a transistorized pickup that he carries almost everywhere, and the Fourth Commando standard bears the red and green of the Legion. At inspections, Steiner often gets his troops' attention by firing off a few rounds from his Browning, then lectures them, his walking stick under one arm. "You are not Legionnaires," he will rant after a particularly bad showing. "You are not men." He has demoted at least one captain to private, but has also been known to pick a good man from the ranks and make him an officer. When he recently elevated a private to 2nd lieutenant, one of his officers complained: "My dear chap, we can't have someone in the mess eating with his fingers." Steiner, who speaks French and German, replied that he did not care if the man ate with his feet, as long as he was a good soldier.

Steiner likes beer, Benson & Hedges cigarettes, violence and very little else. Compulsively clean, he throws even slightly dusty plates at his mess waiters, then kicks them to drive the point home. But he also plucked a 21-year-old Ibo boy from the side of his dead parents, adopted him and named him Felix Chukwuemeka (after Ojukwu) Steiner.

The troops do not seem to mind the harshness of the command; they follow Steiner because they believe he is a winner and because he has juju (good luck). Thus Steiner has had no trouble refilling the depleted ranks of the Fourth at this late stage in the conflict. Guerrilla warfare may be the way out, he thinks. "If the towns are taken, we will go into the bush," he says. "We could do the job. But we must have weapons. We don't need armor. We need trucks. We don't need much air. But spotter planes would be useful."

Bulletproof. Steiner's mercenary officers are a mixed lot, united only by loyalty to their commander, distinguished only by their combat experience and their foibles. Major Taffy, 34, Welsh and a veteran of the Fifth Commando mercenaries of the Congo, thinks he is bulletproof. By now, so do the federals, who have reported him dead at least five times since last December. Taffy came perilously close to being killed a few weeks ago, when a round smashed into his binoculars. Short-tempered, he curses his black troops constantly, threatening to kill them if they don't obey orders. "You rotten bastards!" he roars, when things go wrong. "You bloody, treacherous morons!"

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