Charles Michael Sweeny (1882-1963) is describable as the soldier-of-fortune but it would probably be fairer to call him a soldier-of-conscience. Sweeny played a role in many of the major conflicts that occurred in the first half of the twentieth century where his natural aptitude for soldiering saw him rise from the ranks of rebel and private soldier to various command positions in armies around the world – and all despite an aversion to the rules of the conventional military and a desire to fight wars he believed in.
As he summed up in later life: “I didn’t desire an orthodox military career in the United States Army, nor did I wish to be a pretty parade soldier. I did not then quite know what I wanted to do except be the kind of soldier who was not a common mercenary, just fighting where the money was, but rather one who spent his fighting in the cause of freedom and honour in any part of the world where those things were threatened.”
Father and Early Life
Sweeny’s wish to not be “a common mercenary” was in fact largely feasible due to the great wealth accrued by his father in a career that, but for some minor twists, could well see him a subject in this website too. Charles Sweeny Senior had twice run away from his family at the age of fifteen to enlist in the Union Army, eventually succeeding under the alias ‘McNulty’ and fighting in the Civil War under George Custer.
After the war Sweeny Snr. enlisted in an American volunteer unit that was seeking to aid republican rebels overthrow Maximilian, the Emperor of Mexico. However, his ship was forbidden from docking at Acapulco by U.S. Marines already there and Sweeny Snr. made his way to San Francisco where he would begin a career that saw him move through a host of roles in various industries around the country, making and losing several fortunes in mining and land speculation but always recovering by sheer drive and determination to eventually becoming a major figure in American business by the end of the nineteenth century.
It was into this roving lifestyle that Charles Sweeny Jnr. was born, in San Francisco on 2 January, 1882. With his father so involved in his business much of Sweeny’s early life was spent with his mother, siblings and a nomadic existence across the Western United States. As a result his education was largely haphazard and acquired in various locales and by way of tasks his father set him from a young age, as well as from any books he could find himself to read – most noticeably at the age of nine when he was able to read a set of volumes chronicling the history of the American Civil War, a subject that he would retain encyclopaedic knowledge of for the rest of his life. This also seems to mark the young Sweeny’s first interest in the prospect of soldiering for a living.
In his early teens his father sent him to work in his mines in Idaho. Here Sweeny would be exposed to a harsh working experience and to rough characters where he started to pick up the self-reliance and toughness that would see him through in the future. Unfortunately, the young Sweeny may have been a bit too overconfident in his abilities as at the age of fifteen he became involved in a brawl in a brothel when, egged on by cronies, he seduced another prospectors mistress. Literally caught ‘in the act’ Sweeny was thrown out onto the street, charged back into the saloon and in the ensuing fight was beaten unconscious.
Details are lacking in what occurred next in Sweeny’s life and friends and biographies of him admit that he was reticent to discuss what happened in the years 1898 to 1900, but the legend has grown that after the fight in the saloon Sweeny had a confrontation with his father and, just like Sweeny Snr., ran away to join the army where he fought in the Spanish-American War of 1898. Whether Sweeny actually took part in the fighting in Cuba is unknown, but his entry to West Point military academy in 1900 lists him as having the rank of private and he would in the 1950’s receive a pension as a veteran of the war, a fact which according to Professor Wormuth of the University of Utah, a close friend of Sweeny, ‘greatly amused him.’
West Point, Expulsion and Notre Dame
Though it is impossible to be certain about what Sweeny was doing in this period, he did join West Point in 1900, almost certainly at the insistence of his father who had had enough of his head strong son and thought that the discipline inherent in a military career would be no bad thing for him. Unfortunately Sweeny’s independent nature made him ill-suited to the confines of the academy’s syllabus and he was discharged in October, 1901 for ‘deficiency in conduct’, apparently for performing a prank which involved tethering a goat to the Chaplains roof.
Bizarrely – though Sweeny had developed a reputation as a ‘barrack room lawyer’ and quite often ignored the syllabus, learning as he saw fit and culminating in alleged comment from him in an essay that Napoleon would not have been master of Europe had he learnt at West Point – he had set his heart on becoming a soldier and began a campaign of appeal, bombarding the commandant with letters and involving his congressman. Successful, he was allowed to rejoin the academy in August 1902.
Unfortunately Sweeny’s problem was that though he had become extremely keen to take up soldiering as a profession he believed that the best way to do this was by practical ‘on-the-job’ experience, not from textbooks. He also had a strong dislike for the training system at West Point, part of a pattern of rebellion against ‘stupidity masquerading as authority’ – as he termed it – that he would largely live his life by. Ironically his time at West Point would later prove useful in gaining employment and in performing training roles.
Again, some mystery surrounds Sweeny’s second – and final – leaving of West Point. Records show that Sweeny was found deficient in Philosophy and resigned in December 1903. Sweeny would always state that he was the only cadet twice expelled from West Point and never shed light on the reason for his leaving. However, McCormack’s biography of Sweeny states that he was thrown out for pulling a potentially lethal prank where he stole a cannon and used it to shoot a hole in the Commandant’s roof, an act which saw him placed under arrest and then shortly after quietly kicked out so as not to cause the academy embarrassment.
Sweeny’s father once again had to intervene and, threatening to cut off his allowance, insisted that Sweeny at least attend university and prepare for a future career. He then attended Notre Dame and studied engineering. Though he enjoyed his time here, graduating with a degree in his subject as well as developing his taste for history, his determination to be a soldier never left him. One of his classmates, Walter Yates, recalled that Sweeny commented that after finishing at Notre Dame he would head for Southern America in search of a war, providing it was ‘the right kind of war.’ Describing his friend as ‘a cynic with a streak of realism’, Yates said that Sweeny stated:
‘Yates, I don’t want one of those goddamn politician made wars. I want to fight in something in which people count.’
Assisting Mexican Revolutionaries and Fighting in Venezuela and Nicaragua
Information is sketchy and sometimes and contradictory on the next few years of Sweeny’s life. Upon graduation he went to work in Canada for a period, surveying and building railroads, before being sent to Mexico to inspect mine workings for American companies. There the conditions for workers were so appalling that Sweeny became extremely sympathetic to Mexican calls for better treatment, particularly from American companies. When the US Government started to spy on the activities and postal communications of Mexican rebel exiles on behalf of President Diaz of Mexico, a man whose security forces routinely used lethal force on strikes and protests, Sweeny was enraged and started to assist the PLM revolutionary party in its plans for sedition.
Sweeny initially helped to set up activist cells amongst PLM sympathisers in the United States for intelligence purposes and provided weapons training as well as assisting with arms smuggling across the border into Mexico. In September 1906 he moved into active fighting when he participated in a raid on the border town of Jiminez, the first armed rebellion against Diaz’s rule. Though the raid successfully seized the town the act failed to spark a full blown rebellion across the country and Federal troops quickly moved to re-establish control. In the ensuing fighting Sweeny was lightly wounded and had to lay low to escape capture. He would resurface later in the month to see action in fighting around Camargo, again unsuccessful.
This experience seems to have soured Sweeny to the leadership of anti-Diaz faction, particularly that of Francisco Madero, who Sweeny had previously much admired, and he left Mexico to pursue other opportunities. However, the spark that he had helped ignite would continue to smoulder until Mexico exploded into revolution in 1910 and Diaz was forced into exile to be replaced by Madero. Sweeny’s misgivings about the new president proved well-founded when Madero proved incapable of controlling the various factions, leading to his assassination in 1913 and the subsequent four years of brutal civil war that followed.
Sweeny next ended up in Venezuela where, depending on which source you believe, he either worked as an engineer or took part in an abortive coup against President Castro. According to Sweeny’s version of events, his adventure started when he heard from a mining acquaintance working for an American oil company seeking to overthrow Castro so as to secure concessions from his Vice-President, Juan-Vicente Gomez, with whom they were conducting secret negotiations. Sweeny’s West Point education and engineering background made him an ideal candidate for the job and he was hired as an instructor for rebel forces that were forming in the country’s interior.
Once he joined his new unit and had surveyed the countryside to ensure the presence of the speculated asphalt deposits, Sweeny began training his men for the coming battle under the command of a man that Gomez had chosen to represent him. Sweeny’s intention was to seize a town that could act as the rebel base and serve as a rallying point for malcontents, building the army’s strength until they were in a position to challenge Castro’s forces. Unfortunately, their initial success went to the head of the rebel commander, who ordered an immediate attack on Caracas.
Sweeny later told a friend that he ‘actually felt like I was marching to my doom…this march to the coast was just a slow procession to death.’ And it very nearly was that. Encountering Castro’s army, the rebel band was cut to pieces by the presidential troops and Sweeny was knocked unconscious and captured when his horse was shot out from under him.
Faced with a quick trial and summary execution in Caracas, Sweeny insisted on making a personal appeal to President Castro, claiming to be a newspaper reporter who had simply been accompanying the rebel troops. Venezuela at that time had already experienced a number of conflicts with foreign powers – in 1903 actually suffering blockade and bombardment from the British, German and Italian fleets – and still routinely had warships of the powers cruising just off its coast. This may well have caused Castro to reconsider the death sentence on Sweeny, as another enemy in the shape of the United States was the last thing Venezuela needed.
Whatever the reasons Sweeny was released and ordered out of the country. He subsequently worked as a journalist in New Orleans before being approached in 1909 to join a mercenary force that was forming to help overthrow Zelaya, president of Nicaragua. Zelaya had aspirations of setting up a ‘United States of Central America’, which involved actively interfering with neighbouring countries affairs and arming rebels and of building a shipping canal to compete with the one under construction in Panama at the time. Neither of these policies endeared him to the United States, already deeply involved in its interventionist ‘Banana War’ period, and which seems to have been far less rigorous in enforcing its neutrality policy on this occasion. No doubt this was due to the low regard with which Zelaya was held in Washington, with further fuel being poured on their ire when, in November 1909, two American mercenaries who had been assisting Nicaraguan rebels were executed on Zelaya’s orders.
Sweeny’s force was effectively the first direct form of support for forces against Zelaya and enjoyed a considerable amount of support from the U.S. Navy. The mercenary army was escorted by an American fleet and this proved critical when the army attempted to land in Nicaragua. Encountering heavy resistance the force had to withdraw under the covering fire from the American ships, which then ferried the mercenaries to another point on the coast were they could disembark unmolested.
Sweeny, in charge of the advanced guard of the marching army, recalled to friends later in life the farcical situation created by the complete lack of lower ranks in the army. In order to encourage men to join the recruiting agents in New Orleans had offered men officer ranks, meaning the army was composed of ‘captains’ and ‘lieutenants’. Sweeny, with typical stubbornness refused to take command unless his rank was superior to his subordinates. He was promptly promoted to Major on his first morning in country and made Colonel two days later.
Sweeping aside resistance, Sweeny’s advance guard took the city of Granada and there Sweeny took control of running the city whilst the rest of the rebel force caught up. Shortly into his stint as governor he was warned by an associate who was an old Nicaraguan hand that he might be better off making himself scarce. A ‘gringo’ who had become established in a powerful position and was owed wages by the rebellion’s sponsors could find himself up in front of a firing squad in very quick time – it was the easier and cheaper option after all. Sweeny took the advice and left.
La Belle France and Escapades in North Africa
In 1910 Sweeny, who seems to have spent far more money fighting in revolutions than he earned, travelled to France. Here he fell in love, with both France and one Ms. Eva Vons – whom he married and had three children with – and spent two years attending various courses in law, politics and military science at the Sorbonne, Ecole de Guerre and the School of Political Science. However, this comparatively stable period came to an end in 1913 when he began wandering again, visiting much of Western Europe, North Africa and the Levant.
In Morocco he became friends with Walter Harris, legendary correspondent for the Times newspaper, who would recite a story of Sweeny trying to organise the rescue of a mysterious women mercenary whom he had been associated with in Mexico from Rif tribesman. According to McCormick’s biography this ‘Capitano Juanita’ – alleged to be a Spanish woman who fought in numerous revolutions throughout South and Central America and who is as mysterious a figure as any in military history – was quite possibly the great love of Sweeny’s life; it was rumoured that after her death in 1939 he had flowers sent to her grave in Spain every year.
Sweeny’s travels would give him a great knowledge of the region and further his admiration for France. So it is hardly a surprise that when – whilst holidaying with his young family at a French resort in 1914 – upon hearing he heard that war had broken out between France and Germany Sweeny simply called out to his wife ‘Mother, I’m leaving,’ and without a word of explanation where or why headed to Paris to join the Foreign Legion.
World War One, the Battle of Champagne and Winning the Legion d’honneur
Military records show that Sweeny signed on for the duration of the war on 24 August, 1914, one of the first Americans to become involved in the Great War. Transferred to Rouen to undertake six weeks basic training, Sweeny’s previous service at West Point meant he was called upon to assist in drilling the other volunteers before the recruits were sent to the front and served as a company orderly and messenger; ‘We completed our training under fire,’ as Sweeny put it, his regiment – the forty-ninth – initially being deployed near Beaumont, Champagne
It soon became apparent that this new war was something outside of Sweeny’s previous combat experience. Writing in his journal he tells of how, when first surveying the trenches he came under shell fire: ‘You should have seen us dive into a shell hole. We laughed nervously and glanced at each other. Then we sneaked through the woods again downhill, our tails between our legs. We felt cheap, humiliated. It was as though we were doing an unsoldierly thing. Later we learned that taking cover is good common sense.’
Details of Sweeny’s combat record are far from complete and, to be expected for someone who fought throughout the conflict, would be far too extensive to detail in anything but summary. He was rapidly promoted, to Corporal in December 1914 and Sergeant in February 1915 and would win the Croix de Guerre and achieve promotion to Lieutenant – which Paul Rockwell in his book American Fighters in the Foreign Legion states made him the first American volunteer of the war to achieve this – after fighting in the battle of Artois.
Here Sweeny saved the life of an officer, singlehandedly stormed a machine gun nest and then – all other NCO’s and officers being killed or injured – took command of his company and led an attack further into the German lines. He was badly wounded and stretchered off the field, but returned to his unit the next day. Writing to his wife of the battle he assured her that: ‘I have no intention of dying. Of that you can be sure.’
Sweeny’s self-assurance went hand-in-hand with an attitude that many will find bizarre, possibly psychopathic, but may well explain his success in war and in surviving one of the greatest conflagrations in human history practically from the start. In a letter Sweeny explained that he did not like taking leave as it ‘soften[s] a fighter, making him vulnerable.’ He explained that: ‘…you’ve got to remember that I’m not just a career soldier…I saw what that meant at West Point and didn’t like it. No my friend, I decided not just to become a soldier, but a fighter. I opted for war as my profession…War is hell, I won’t deny, but it is a greater hell if you are not dedicated to it. If you stay on in hell, sooner or later it clicks to normality…to me there is a thrill in the whine of shrapnel and the dawn attack when one blast of the whistle sends us out over the shattered ground…’
This thrill in battle is not a new phenomenon, though it is exceedingly rare to hear such views expressed about the mechanised slaughter of the First World War. And it certainly did not make Sweeny immune to bullets. Promoted to lieutenant in July 1915, Sweeny took part in the Second Battle of Champagne in September of that year, a grinding horror that lasted two months and resulted in 145,000 casualties to the French for no territorial gains at all.
Sweeny’s experience of the battle largely sums up the entire French effort. Part of the Corps de Shoc, a unit of elite troops who were retained for storming attacks, his company became involved in fierce fighting with the German defenders on the first day of the attack, achieving marginal gains in ground in several hours of fighting. As the initial attacks petered out and the Germans began to counter attack Sweeny, who had managed to penetrate one hundred yards behind the German positions, was forced to retreat back before ordering his depleted command to dig in and requesting reinforcements. He and his men then endured hours of heavy shelling before night fell, bringing them some respite.
However, at dawn the next morning (26 September, 1915) the Germans had managed to move forward and had sited machine guns close to Sweeny’s company. In danger of being cut off, Sweeny once again requested reinforcements and then set his men to engaging the closest machine guns. Showing more bravery than sense, Sweeny crawled to the lip of a shell hole and fired repeatedly at one of these emplacements at a range of some fifty metres, an action that lead to a heavy response that saw Sweeny shot through the chest, piercing one of his lungs and knocking him down into the hole.
He lay there for several hours before two of his legionnaires managed to reach him and return him to a first aid post. Here the surgeons found an American flag wrapped his torso, portions of which had been carried into the wound, and proclaimed that he could do little for him. Sweeny afterwards said he heard every word and that inspired his typical bloody mindedness to not just lie there and die: ‘It just made me damn well determined to live on if only to spite the bastard… I just knew I mustn’t fall asleep. If I had it would have been the end.’
Recuperation, Tanks and America Joins the War
Transferred to hospital Sweeny was in October awarded the Legion d’honneur and spent months recovering from his wound. Despite this he continued to plague his doctors and officers from his regiment on demands that he be allowed to return to action. They, in what they hoped would provide him excuse to rest and recuperate, offered him leave back in the States until he had recovered, only to be on the receiving end of an outburst of rage at the proposal.
Eventually his commanding officer managed to convince Sweeny to conduct a lecture tour of the still neutral United States to raise awareness of France’s plight, thereby allowing Sweeny to continue to aid the war effort whilst recovering. He sailed on 9 February, 1916 to conduct the tour and may have also performed some form of intelligence role on behalf of the French government during this time, though details are sketchy and Sweeny was always uncharacteristically quiet about his affairs in this period. He certainly made a great impression as an American hero at a time when the United States was still neutral and the talks he gave dispelled any notion of the glories of war. ‘War is hard labour,’ he said, and that he had no time for ‘the heroic and romantic spectacle that some people imagine.’
Returning to France he was assigned to train recruits and attended officers training at Montelimar, before having to return to hospital to have an operation. His wound, still unhealed, was found to contain a scrap of the flag he had wrapped around him at the time of his wounding and this had caused an infection. Once removed Sweeny made a speedy recovery and was transferred to one of the first tank units. Here he rapidly mastered the contemporary theory on the use of armoured vehicles and began to visualise better uses for the new weapon. This went from the need to camouflage the vehicles – he set his men to collecting foliage so as to cover the vehicles under his command – to the need to increase the numbers acting together so as to provide mutual support and real breakthrough capability. Already in command of sixteen tanks he insisted that he needed at least fifty and their crews provoking his CO to ask ‘do you want your own private army?’
Anticipating America’s entry into the war with the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare by Germany in January 1917 and never one to do things in half measures Sweeny telegraphed Senator Poindexter on 4 February asking him to “kindly offer my services to the President in case of need”. With America’s entry into the war in April 1917 Sweeny – soon to be promoted to Captain – returned to the States on a military mission with General Joffre with the view to being allowed to join the American Expeditionary Force (AEF). The U.S. Army at the declaration of war was small with no experience of modern warfare and the return of combat veterans to pass on their knowledge was largely welcomed. However Sweeny, despite bearing a letter of commendation signed by a large number of officers attached to the American Military Mission in Paris, met a great deal of resistance. Hailed as a hero in the American press, who had followed his exploits closely, he met what Paul Rockwell in his book American Fighters in the Foreign Legion describes as ‘a considerable struggle with red tape and jealousy,’ notionally over concerns that his enlistment in the Foreign Legion had negated his U.S. citizenship.
Though it may seem madness now for the AEF not to snap up an officer with both extensive combat experience and a working relationship with the French it seems that Sweeny’s public reputation, possibly combined with his private one from his time at West Point may have impeded his re-entry back into the war. Additionally, expectations to a higher rank than he had held in the French Army may have upset the establishment – though the demand made obvious sense and was supported by the American Ambassador to France and Senator Poindexter, who suggested a Colonelcy at least.
In defence of the U.S. Army it should also be remembered that it had just been committed to the biggest conflict that it had ever engaged in and had plenty of other things to do than run around after one errant expat who had a reputation for being a nuisance and had left West Point under a cloud. How much of the delay was due to petty motives or simple bureaucratic overload depends on which side you choose to believe.
Transfer to the US Army
In the end it took the U.S. Army a month to decide that it would take Sweeny on for service in the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) that was forming up to fight in France and he was appointed a Major in the Officer Reserve Corps on 29 May 1917. Unfortunately the War Department decreed that he should also attend Officer Training School at Fort Myer, Virginia, where Sweeny found himself starting at the very bottom, having to learn elementary drill and perform fatigues.
Naturally, this state of affairs enraged him and at the beginning of July 1917 he ‘resigned’, the ensuing row being reported by the New York World newspaper and causing a scandal for the War Department, who, in what could have been a disastrous decision for the morale of all concerned, ordered that Sweeny take charge of training the officers who only days before had been ordering him around.
Fortunately Sweeny rose to the occasion, telling the officers at Fort Myer: ‘Let’s forget yesterday and remember there’s a war to be fought…the sooner we get across and finish it the better. You all want to get the hell out of here and so do I. Just let me help you do it…it’s just possible that if you all pay attention to me there may be a few more of you alive at the end of it all than if you hadn’t heard what I have to tell you. And that…is a good reason for our remaining friends.’ He also stated that close order drill exercises were ‘a load of crap that is about as useful to a soldier on the Western Front as piles to a man who sits at a desk,’ and instituted a program of realistic battle training at an artificial battle ground he had created outside the camp where the troops could practice assaulting trenches in as close to an approximation to the real thing as possible.
Sweeny returned to France in 1918 in command of the 1st battalion of the 318th Regiment, part of the 80th Infantry Division. Here he developed a reputation amongst his men of leading from the front and for having an exceptional eye for terrain and quick initiative. Whilst fighting in the Argonne offensive of September 1918 he was wounded by a piece of shrapnel close to the location of his first wound but recovered quickly. Back in action shortly before the armistice and he was again shot but continued to fight with his men, telling those who asked him if there was anything wrong that he had a cold, which his men accepted as he had been suffering from illness in the Argonne battles. Once the fighting had died down and he had ensured his men were safe he announced that ‘I have had about as much lead and shrapnel during this war as the human frame can carry and I’d better get rid of it,’ and departed for hospital. The war finished a few days later.
Fighting for Poland and Turkey, Links to Intelligence and Meeting Hemingway
For many veterans, the relief must have been indescribable. Not for Sweeny. Though still recovering from his injuries, and promoted to Lieutenant Colonel in February 1919, he immediately started looking for his next war, settling on the fledgling nation of Poland’s battle against the Soviet Bolsheviks. According to a later report by the Associated Press, Sweeny conferred with the Polish Prime Minister Ignacy Jan Paderewski about raising an American volunteer flying unit to aid the Poles and in September of 1919 set sail for Poland with a contingent of veterans to fight on behalf of the new republic.
Details are again sparse on his record in Poland, but he is reputed to have fought in the decisive Battle of Warsaw and did sufficiently well for the Poles to promote him to Brigadier and be mentioned in dispatches. Edward Myers, a British veteran who knew Sweeny at this time, said that he was held in high regard by both Paderewski and Pilsudski, generalissimo of Poland, and that his rank was granted to him for training Polish partisans, though Sweeny also despaired at the of the lack of cooperation between the Polish commands and their White Russian allies. It is also possible that he remained involved with French intelligence. After the Polish-Soviet war was over his wife in Paris ran into Larry Larue, a journalist and friend of Sweeny’s, who informed her that her husband was currently in Russia. Whatever the truth of the matter this was apparently the only time that any of his family heard that Sweeny had been to the Soviet Union. He never spoke of it to anyone to their knowledge.
Returning to Paris in 1921 tensions in the East Mediterranean soon saw Sweeny off to assist Turkey in its conflict with Greece, notionally with a job as correspondent with the New York World but in fact acting as an agent for the French intelligence service where it is alleged he investigated the dealings of the arm supplier Basil Zaharoff, a shadowy Machiavellian figure accused, rightly or wrongly, of aiding any side that could make him a profit and of sponsoring wars and revolutions around the globe. McCormick goes as far to state that Sweeny detested Zaharoff and would do anything he could to cause the man pain. He further states that Sweeny became subject to an investigation by British Intelligence at this time. Sweeny, aware of their interest and reporting the fact to a Turkish police chief was told that:
‘Oh yes, we have known for a long time that the British have been shadowing you. We had an official communication from them saying you were not only a mercenary, but a double-agent. But we knew the British had had this information from the Greeks because the French had told us all about you. And, for good measure, we also have a dossier on you from the Russians. The only country that does not seem interested in you…is your own!’
His work as a ‘correspondent’ also meant Sweeny was to make two important acquaintances. An interview with Kemal Ataturk, commander-in-chief of the Turkish military and later first president of the Turkish Republic, greatly impressed Sweeny and he secured a short lived position as an advisor to Ataturk before the collapse of the Greek army and the end of the war in October 1922.
The other friend he made was a young Ernest Hemingway, who was also covering the war as a journalist on behalf of the Toronto Star. In his biography of Hemingway Carlos Baker states that Sweeny made a great impression on the young writer, amazing Hemingway with his grasp of military science and tactics. It was close friendship that would continue right up until Hemingway’s suicide in 1961 and Sweeny would serve his friend as an honorary pall bearer at the funeral. According to a letter Hemingway wrote to Charles Lanham, Sweeny served as partial inspiration for the character of Colonel Cantwell, hero of Across the River and into the Trees.
Founding the American Mercenary Squadron, Fighting the Rif and Condemnation in America
With the Greco-Turkish War resolved Sweeny once again returned to Paris for a spell before, in July 1925, he again offered his services to his adopted country in its war against the Rif in North Africa. Here he courted controversy by approaching the French and offering to recruit a squadron of pilots to fight in their campaign, an action that saw him castigated in America by anti-colonialists and isolationists. The French, though very happy to accept the help, were insistent that the new unit was employed as part of the Sultan of Morocco’s army to try to avoid complications over American neutrality laws and public opinion and thus Sweeny became Commander-in-Chief of the Sultan’s Air Force – a single squadron of American volunteers flying French machines and with French ground crew.
Though Sweeny was very vocal on his belief of the benefits of French colonial rule as justification for his involvement part of Sweeny’s motivation was his hatred of the leader of the Rif rebellion, Abd el-Krim, who may have been involved in the capture of the mysterious Capitano Juanita which had inspired Sweeny to propose his rescue mission prior to World War One. Sweeny also saw Krim as the epitome of what he saw as the worst of conservative Islamic society. ‘This man is no Ataturk, no genuine progressive,’ he said, adding that ‘He is a reactionary, committed to putting the clock back one hundred years in Morocco.’ He also firmly believed that Krim had been an agent for the Germans during World War One and continued to be supported by them.
Certainly his obvious ire, and the respect in which he was held by his fellow mercenaries, was reason enough for men to sign up. As Reginald Weller, a journalist and veteran who became the unit’s adjutant summed up: ‘If Sweeny thinks Abd el-Krim is a heel, I’ll take his word for it.’ Krim returned the favour by offering a bounty of five thousand dollars for every member of the new squadron bought to him dead or alive and describing them as ‘mercenary pilots that deserve no mercy.’
Faced with increasing criticism in the States, Sweeny managed to well and truly infuriate his opponents in the U.S. by publicly stating that criticisms of his unit were ‘yellow-bellied isolationism spouted by crocodile-tear shedding, middle-aged Senators who have grown fat and maudlin out of war profits and now want to turn their backs on the world,’ which engendered calls for him to be returned to the States to face trial for breaking America’s neutrality laws.
The controversy continued to mount as the squadron went into action in Morocco, with newspapers in the States taking sides and arguing about the consequences of Sweeny’s actions. The Baltimore Sun wrote that ‘to transform the United States in Moslem eyes from an idealistic neutral to a forthright opponent of Moslem ideals is to impose new obstacles to the settlement of outstanding issues.’ Eventually the State department decided to intervene and informed the American consul-general in Tangiers that he should inform the flyers that they were violating American law by participating. Sweeny and his men, upon hearing of the news, dismissed it and the complete lack of follow up action by the U.S. government meant that they had simply aggravated both the French and the Rif. Supporters of the Rif stated that this meant the U.S. was giving it’s tacit support to French and Spanish aims in North Africa whilst the French press asked if the Americans where trying to undermine them and recognise Rif independence.
The State Department was in an unenviable position, but when the squadron became involved in bombing Rif villages the storm in America really broke and the French decided to withdraw the squadron from action in October, the flyers returning to France the following month. Though they had been in action for only six weeks the squadron had made a great impression on the French for their professionalism and skill. In the Army order disbanding the unit on 27 October Marshall Petain stated that:
‘The squadron has been brilliantly commanded by Colonel Sweeny…this unit, remarkable for high spirit, willingness for sacrifice and the high morale of its crews, carried out daily long and difficult and distant missions of liaison, observation and bombardment, accomplishing more than 350 war missions in six weeks and dropping more than forty tons of projectiles.’
Though he always insisted that Krim was ‘a brutal bully’ and agent provocateur for German schemes Sweeny would praise the skills and tenacity of his Rif opponents. In a letter to a friend he told of one of the Riffian marching songs which translated into:
‘One Englishman is a sportsman. Two Englishmen are a drunken brawl. Three Englishmen is a Colony.
‘One Spaniard is Don Quixote. Two Spaniards are Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Three Spaniards are a disaster.
‘One Riffian is a sniper. Two Riffians are a Battalion. Three Riffians are a victory.’
‘Bravely said and there is a lot of truth in their sentiments,’ Sweeny wrote.
His Rif exploits making him essentially a persona non grata with the American establishment, Sweeny continued to use Paris as his base and family home for the next decade, in which time he travelled extensively and somewhat mysteriously. His son, another Charles Sweeny, records that during this period he spent more than usual amounts of time with his family, but would often disappear for long periods, replying when asked where he had come with ‘from the railway station.’ Professor Wormuth told Sweeny’s biographer that he had at one point in this period gone to China, though this remains unconfirmed. He is also rumoured to have again been involved with French intelligence in various operations around the world, though once again this is based on hearsay from those who knew him.
What is known is that when he was in Paris he lectured at the Ecole De Guerre and spent time with Hemingway, for a period managing the Paris office of the New York Post. In 1928-9 he was sent by the French military as General Armengaud’s Assistant Chief of Mission to examine the uses North Africa could be put to in the event of another major European war, though his recommendation to fortify the Tunisia-Libyan border to dissuade future aggression by the Italians was turned down.
Fascism, The Spanish Civil War and the Build up to WW2
Sweeny would become increasingly vocal on the threat posed by Mussolini and Hitler as fascism began its rise in Europe and the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War gave him the excuse necessary to take action against what he saw as the greatest threat facing European civilisation. Sweeny was a committed anti-Bolshevik and a Catholic so support for the Republicans – elements of which had in the past looted and burnt churches in Spain – illustrates how seriously he viewed the threat of a fascist Spain combined with Italy and a resurgent Germany. Unfortunately his decision also gave ammunition to his persistent enemies in America who branded him ‘the Red Colonel’.
Sweeny initially went to Spain as part of a military observer mission with General Armengaud in 1937 to assess the Republican’s military strength. This returned shortly with a very negative view of the possibility of a Republican victory but Sweeny almost immediately set off alone to assist what was considered a lost cause by the mission. According to his son he returned in May 1939, two months after the Republican defeat, and the assumption is that Sweeny stayed until the end. He was certainly blacklisted by Franco’s government and was never allowed to return to Spain again.
Disappointed by the factionalism he had witnessed amongst the Republicans, Sweeny explained to his friend Alfred Wintle that ‘the Spanish Government and the Russians spent too much time quarrelling and too little in tackling the enemy,’ adding prophetically: ‘If we are going in to face up to the dictators, we have to forget political differences and just keep on fighting. The Italians don’t really matter: you can beat them with a dose of Vichy water. But you want a five-finger of spirits and none of water to hit the Bosch.’
Sweeny also found the delusional attitude in Paris to the coming war, which he had viewed as inevitable for some time, as deeply disturbing. He and Henry Reilly, an American Brigade commander in World War One who had covered the Spanish War as a correspondent, began to plan for the formation of an American volunteer division and an ‘aviation brigade’ to be formed at the outbreak of war. The New York Times announced on 25 August the two men’s plans and within days two thousand Americans had registered.
Though Sweeny had hoped to avoid the same situation he and his men had experienced during the Rif Rebellion by conducting the actual recruitment in Canada, the State Department asked the FBI to look into Sweeny’s actions. America, determinedly isolationist, had reinforced its traditional neutrality laws with a number of additional acts in 1935, ’36 and ‘37, and a presidential decree in September 1939 made it illegal for a recruiter to hire anyone within the jurisdiction of the United States or to incite potential recruits to travel outside the country or its territories to join a foreign military.
As a result Sweeny’s reputation and plans firmly placed him as a potential lawbreaker and the FBI dispatched two agents to Paris to investigate his actions. This invoked an unsurprising result when Sweeny found a Federal agent in the Hotel Crillon, a long time watering hole of his in Paris, asking questions about his affairs. Sweeny, no longer a young man, physically ejected him.
War and the Fall of France
At the outbreak of war on 3 September 1939, Sweeny and his associates put their plans into action and Sweeny approached the French Prime Minister Edouard Daladier with a proposal to set up a recruitment centre in Canada for airmen wishing to fly for France in the model of the First World War’s Lafayette squadrons. The two discussed in a series of notes the war situation and Sweeny warned that the Maginot Line would not stop the Germans and described the need for mobile armoured columns in the similar manner of to that which would be utilised by the German ‘blitzkrieg’. He also warned the Prime Minister that the Italians would enter the war on the side of the Germans and that the French should act to protect their North African possessions to dissuade this threat and make plain intentions to attack Italy in the event of their siding with Germany. ‘It is not Germany who should be frightening Mussolini: it is France,’ he wrote.
His warnings went unheeded, but the French command liked the idea of new volunteer squadrons as much for propaganda value as for practical use and in December Sweeny went to Canada and the States to set up the recruiting centre and begin hiring. Unfortunately he was to face suspicion from the Canadians – who didn’t want Canadian recruits poached from their own efforts – and hostility from sections of the American press by whom, Sweeny recorded, he was ‘hounded like a criminal.’ He was also hotly pursued by the FBI on his escapades around the States in his recruiting efforts, managing to evade them and a potential three-year jail sentence for breaching the neutrality laws. Ultimately Sweeny managed to recruit and dispatch thirty-three pilots to France between March and May 1940. Unfortunately the poor reception that the first flyers met meant Sweeny had to make a quick return to France in April to find out what the problem was.
Once back in France he was shocked at the apathy that seemed to have set into both the French political and military establishments. Germany had invaded Norway and Denmark and still the Allied forces on the French border stayed static. Once the German invasion of France began and quickly swept over any resistance it became increasingly clear that France could not be saved. Sweeny initially hoped that he and some of his colleagues could persuade parts of the French air force and navy to leave for British territory to continue the fight but these came to nothing. After a warning that the Germans were aware of his efforts and an attempt on his life one night in Paris – which saw him shot at by an unknown assailant, the bullet narrowly missing him – Sweeny decided that there was nothing else to be done and it was time to leave the country. First though he set up an escape route for any who might want to leave France and several radio communication stations before he departed for London.
Helping Establish the Eagle Squadrons
Arriving in London Sweeny was able to join forces with the rest of his formidable family. His nephew, yet another Charles, was an internationally known playboy and golf professional who had settled and married in Britain and become a major business and social figure in the country. With the declaration of war he had helped form a volunteer unit of Americans for the defence of London, which had received financial and material support from his father Robert, Sweeny’s brother, who had taken over control of their father’s business and was a magnate in America.
Nephew Charles, inspired by Sweeny’s example, had been lobbying for the RAF to form an American volunteer squadron. With his impeccable connections in business and the ‘right set’ he had obtained permission to begin formation of what would become 71 Squadron, the first of three ‘Eagle Squadrons’ manned by American pilots. With his uncle’s escape from France came the first three members of the new squadron: Eugene Tobin, Andy Mamedoff and Vernon Keough, all volunteers recruited by Sweeny to serve in the French Air Force and able to escape the fall of the country by way of Sweeny’s pre-planned escape route. From these relatively inauspicious beginnings a legendary unit would grow that survives till the present day. From the time 71 Squadron first went into action on 2 of July, 1941 to the transfer of the three Eagle Squadrons in late September, 1942 to the USAAF as the 4th Fighter Group, the squadrons would claim a total of 73 and a half kills and today their descendant unit flies F-15E Strike Eagles around the globe.
Combining their efforts with those of the Clayton Knight Committee – an organisation set up to help American volunteers avoid American neutrality laws and assist their recruitment into Canadian and British service – Robert Sweeny’s finance, the family’s good connections and Sweeny’s legendary reputation as a soldier-of-fortune encouraged thousands of Americans to volunteer for flying duties with the RAF and the RCAF, the best flyers going to the Eagles and the rest flying in no less valuable roles with Fighter, Coastal, Bomber and Ferry Commands.
As part of these efforts Sweeny was made honorary Group Captain of the Eagle Squadrons and went on public relation trips to Canada and the United States to encourage recruitment, raise funds for a benevolent fund for families of volunteers killed in action and to impress upon the American public the seriousness of the situation in Europe and how America could not afford to ignore the war for ever.
However even before America’s entry into the war in December, 1941, Sweeny realised he was no longer needed in his recruiting role and began to cast around for a new part to play. Immersing himself in maps and reports of the situation he began to cook up schemes for recruiting flyers to operate in Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia from partisan controlled areas to support the guerrillas, an idea which was politely turned down, and then offered his expertise on North Africa and the French Army in the region to launch a solo mission into Morocco to encourage the Pasha and French Generals suspected to be pro-Ally to rise up and attack Axis forces in the theatre. As Allied plans were well laid for the imminent ‘Torch’ invasion he once again was turned down, though without any reason being given. It’s tempting to wonder if Sweeny’s proposal, and his tendency to do as he saw fit, might have caused some worries for Allied planners with the possibility of the old mercenary launching a one man invasion prior to the main event.
Sweeny’s efforts to play a role in the war thwarted and, never the most popular figure with Washington anyway, he became more marginalised when he wrote a book explaining his views on how the war should be conducted, Moment of Truth, which advocated removing authority for the war from the civilian authorities and handing it to the military and was published in 1943. One reviewer described it as ‘…one of the loudest and angriest razzberries’ to Roosevelt’s handling of the war and Sweeny would continue to castigate the President to anyone who would listen up until the latter’s death in 1945.
After World War Two Sweeny settled in Salt Lake City and in the fifties attended the University of Utah to study Geopolitics and later to lecture on revolutions, were he expounded the idea that the spate of rebellions that beset Latin America in the early twentieth century was due to a vast surplus of arms left over from the Spanish American war and veterans with a taste for danger willing to fight. He would also talk of the nature of the fear of men in combat and how this feeling was addictive.
Sweeny suffered a stroke in 1952, losing use of his right side and the ability to speak, but with typical resilience he made an almost complete recovery in two years, including learning to speak French again from scratch. He suffered another stoke in 1959 and began a slow decline, finally dying on 27 February, 1963 in hospital in Salt Lake City at the age of eighty-one. Speaking to a friend in his hospital bed just before he died he said that: ‘…as in the old song, old soldiers don’t die, but just fade away. But the fading for a man of action is much harder than death itself.’
“In the ‘Eagle’ Squadron They Are Americans All”; The War Illustrated, November 1, 1940
History of the 318th Regiment of the 80th Division 1917-1919; The William Byrd Press Inc., Richmond, Va. (1919)
Caine, Philip D.; American Pilots in the RAF:The World War II Eagle Squadrons; Brassey’s (US); McClean, Virginia (1993)
Caine, Philip D.; Eagles of the RAF: The World War II Eagle Squadrons; National Defence University Press; Washington DC (1991)
McCormick, Donald; One Man’s Wars: the Story of Charles Sweeny; Arthur Baker Ltd, London (1972)
Sweeny, Charles; Moment of Truth; Scribner, New York (1943)
Sweeny, Charles and Goodson, Col. James; Sweeny; Wingham Press Ltd, Canterbury (1990)
Bruce Smith – 80th Division Veterans Association;
Christine Minjollet – Musee de la Legion d’Honneur;
Ed Nash has spent years travelling around the world and, on occasion, interfering as he sees fit. He has taught English in remote Indian schools, nearly been struck by lightning on horseback in the mountains of Lesotho and worked with ethnic minorities in Burma. Between June 2015 and July 2016 he volunteered with the Kurdish YPG in its battle against ISIS in Syria. His book on his experiences there, “Desert Sniper”, was published by Little, Brown in September, 2018.