The story's prologue, wherein Shannon and his mercenaries leave a West African war they have lost, saying 'good-bye' to the General, who employed them for the past six months.
A ruthless, British mining tycoon, Sir James Manson, discovers a ten-billion dollar deposit of platinum in the hinterland of the Central African republic of Zangaro. As the Marxist president of Zangaro, Jean Kimba, is under Soviet influence, Sir James understands he must replace him with a right-wing puppet dictator, Colonel Bobi, a man of little intelligence who — once installed as president — will sign over the Zangaro mining rights for a relative pittance and a hefty bribe to his own bank account.
On recommendation from a freelance writer, Manson hires Anglo-Irish mercenary soldier Carlo Alfred Thomas “Cat” Shannon to reconnoiter Zangaro and propose how to depose President Kimba. Shannon recommends assaulting the presidential palace in Clarence, the Zangaran capital city, and the Kimba's assassination; he prices the mission at £100,000 — with £10,000 for himself. Sir James agrees, and Shannon assembles the mercenary soldier team who will execute the coup d'état: German ex-smuggler Kurt Semmler, South African mortar expert Jan Duprée, Belgian bazooka specialist “Tiny” Marc Vlaminck, and Corsican knife man Jean-Baptiste Langarotti.
Semmler travels Europe for a suitable cargo transport ship for them and their equipment to Zangaro. Duprée stays in London and buys all their uniforms, boots, and berets. Langarotti travels to Marseilles to buy inflatable boats for the amphibious assault. Vlaminck accompanies Shannon to Belgium to buy one hundred MP40 'Schmeisser' machine pistols from an ex-SS man. Shannon travels to Luxembourg to establish a holding company to handle the sale of the ship, to Spain to buy four-hundred thousand rounds of 9mm ammunition for the Schmeissers, walkie talkies and flares, and to Yugoslavia to buy the bazooka, mortars, and necessary rockets and bombs. Shannon also manages time to have a brief sexual liaison with Julie, Sir James's daughter.
Nevertheless, the geologist who advised Manson of the Zangaran platinum deposit inadvertently has revealed the mineral secret to the Soviets, who appoint a KGB bodyguard to Kimba while they send in their own geologic survey team. Meanwhile, Manson and henchmen, Simon Endean and financier Martin Thorpe, secretly buy the controlling share in Bormac Trading, Plc, a superannuated mining company. When the Zangaro mining rights are sold to Bormac Trading, Sir James will earn an estimated £80 million windfall.
Rival mercenary Charles Roux, jealous that he was not given the Zangaro job, places a murder contract on Shannon, but Shannon traps the assassin in a Paris alley and Langarotti knifes him dead. Hidden in oil drums, the Schmeisser sub-machine guns are smuggled across the Belgian border to France, then loaded to their ship at Marseilles, along with the uniforms and rubber speedboats, supposedly for watersport in Morocco. They then sail to Ploce, Yugoslavia, to load the weapons bought from an arms dealer, without telling them they already have arms aboard. These weapons are then hidden below deck and the ship sails to Spain to collect the ammunition (supposedly sold to the police force of Iraq). The ship then sails to Sierra Leone to pick up six African mercenaries, who also will participate in the coup d'état raid, and Dr. Okoye, an African physician.
The assault on President Kimba's palace occurs: the palace courtyard is pounded with mortars, its gates destroyed with Vlaminck's bazooka, however Kimba's KGB bodyguard shoots Vlaminck in the chest; the Belgian mercenary is only just able to kill the KGB man with his last bazooka rocket. Duprée is also killed, with a grenade thrown in error, by one of the African mercenaries. Semmler shoots Kimba as he escapes out his bedroom's window.
Simon Endean arrives in Clarence to install Colonel Bobi as the new Zangaran president. He is accompanied by his own bodyguard, a former enforcer for the Kray twins. Shannon kills Col. Bobi and Endean's bodyguard, leaves Dr. Okoye as head of government, and then drives Endean to the border. Meantwhile, Dr. Okoye refuses the Soviet geology survey team's request to land.
Shannon explains to Endean that, in his research, he failed to note the twenty thousand immigrant workers who do most of the work in Zangaro, but who were never politically enfranchised by the Kimba government. Dr. Okoye is one of them, and so are the hundred Schmeisser-equipped soldiers Shannon brought into Zangaro at dawn; they will lead the new government. When Shannon tells Endean that the coup d'état was conducted in behalf of the General, Endean is furious, but Shannon points out that at least this government will be fair, and that if Manson wants the platinum, he will have to pay market price for it.
The final scene of The Dogs of War reveals that Shannon was all along suffering from tobacco-induced lung cancer. Later, Cat Shannon walks into the African bush to end life on his own terms: "a bullet in his chest and blood in his mouth”.
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