The French Foreign Legion during the occupation of France

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Cory C
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The French Foreign Legion during the occupation of France

Post by Cory C » 12 Jan 2004 04:30

Hi,

Just wondering, what became of the French foreign legion after the 1940 French surrender? Did members in other countries become a resistance force, or just null & void?

My apologies if the question has been asked prior, but a Forum search returned over 5600 results.


~Cory

CHRISCHA
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Post by CHRISCHA » 12 Jan 2004 19:54

There were no French Foreign Legion based in France during the 40's, other than recruitment.

The FFL troops in Indo-China were following Petain's Vichy government so didn't fight the Japanese, although one unit of FFL were masacred by the them.

The troops in N.Africa were split. Some fought for the Free French, some siding with the Vichy government and fighting alongside the Germans. Syria, 1941 saw the FFL on both sides fighting one aother.

When war broke out, members of the FFL were allowed to leave to join the army of their own country on the allied side.

The Free French FFL fought in Narvik early in the war, leaving from N.Africa.

1940 Battle for France 11REI, 12REI, 21,22 and 23 RMVE
1940 Narvik operation 13 DBLE
1941 Syria Free French fighting Vichy forces 6REI, 13DBLE
1942 Defence of Bir Hakeim 13DBLE
1943 Tunisia 1 REIM
1944 Itlay 13 DBLE
1944 Invasion of France 1 REC, RMLE
1945 Germany 1 REC, RMLE

Total dead 9017

(sorry this is a little disjointed, if you have any specific queries, I'll try to answer them).

Regards Chris.

Cory C
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Post by Cory C » 12 Jan 2004 23:37

Fascinating stuff. I guess I have no other questions yet. Thanks very much! :)


~Cory

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David Lehmann
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Post by David Lehmann » 13 Jan 2004 10:15

Some various info :

http://www.frenchforeignlegion.org/data ... tents.html

See also the battle honours of the different units.

The 1940 Campaign

Just as in 1870 and 1914, foreigners resident in France enlisted in the ranks of the French army in there thousands. They were formed into three regiments, the 21st, 22nd and 23rd Marching Regiments of the Foreign Volunteers (RMVE). Two more Foreign Infantry Regiments were also formed, the 11th and 12th REI, by recalling reservists to serve under officers and NCOs from active list. The 97th Foreign Divisional Reconnaissance Group (GERD 97) was also formed, from the Legion cavalry.

The 11th REI, the first of these units to be formed, was also the first under fire. On June 11th 1940, in the Verdun sector, it distinguished itself during the heroic defense of Inor Wood against a German division. It was almost completely wiped out. The survivors fought until the armistice of June 22nd, when forced at last to lay down their arms, they were disbanded and the regimental color was burned. Of seven hundred Legionnaire prisoners, nearly five hundred escaped from Verdun. They would reappear later in North Africa, the backbone of General de Lattre’s army of 1943.

Another unit had also been created in February of 1940, the 13th Foreign Legion (Mountain) half Brigade (now 13th DBLE), commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Magrin-Vernerey. It had been intended at first to send this unit to Finland, to help fight the Soviet invasion. Delays in training and government vacillation put paid to this plan, and in the end it was sent to Norway, a strangely arctic destination for a unit formed on the sands of North Africa.

Embarking at Brest on April 22nd 1940 the 13th DBLE reached Liverpool on April 25th, departing four days later to arrive, May 6th, at Ballangen, the advanced base for operations at Narvik. At dawn on the 13th May, the Legionnaires landed on the soil of Norway. In a matter of hours, the 1st Battalion took Bjervik, the 2nd Battalion, and Moeby. The next day, a patrol destroyed German aircraft based on Lake Hartvivand. But the main objective was Narvik, on the other side of Rombakfjord.

This second landing took place on May 28th. The 2nd Battalion climbed the cliffs, hard fighting followed along the railway track linking Narvik with Sweden, until nightfall saw the 1st Battalion in the heart of Narvik itself. The operation was completely successful, and the days that followed saw the Germans driven back to the frontier. They were saved, at the last moment, by the German offensive in France. Paris needed all of her troops, and the Legionnaires had to re-embark in haste. By June 6th, it was all over.

After spending several days trying to organize a defensive position in Brittany, the 13th DBLE found itself once again climbing the gangplanks at Brest, and crossing to England. There it was offered a choice, either to continue the fight under General de Gaulle, alongside the British, or to return to Morocco. The 2nd Battalion, whose commander, Gueninchault, had been killed at Narvik, and in which the influence of the Georgian Prince, Captain Amilakvari, was strong, chose Free France. The 1st Battalion preferred repatriation to North Africa.

On August 31st, the dissidents (who had provisionally awarded themselves the title of 14th Half Brigade, but who soon reverted to 13th DBLE) embarked once more in England. Their destination was Africa. After a check before Dakar, which remained loyal to Petain, the Legionnaires sailed right around the south of Africa. Their first operation was against the Italians in Eritrea where, on April the 8th 1941, they took the port of Massawa from a garrison of fourteen thousand troops. But it was in the Western Desert that the real glory awaited the Legionnaires of the 13th DBLE.


Bir Hakeim

Initially, the 1st Free French Brigade (in which the 13th DBLE now served, two battalions strong) was assigned to an attack on Halfaya Pass in January 1942. They arrived too late. The headquarters of the British 8th Army, to which the brigade was attached, sent them to help in the construction of the defensive Gazala Line. They were posted to the most southerly point on the line; the "box" named Bir Hakeim.

Bir Hakeim was the desert of desert, totally desolate. For three months, the Legionnaires and their comrades from the colonies laid out defenses and dug in. They knew that the German Afrika Korps and the Italians who faced them were preparing for an offensive. This was unleashed on May 27th 1942. Rommel planned to take Tobruk and then to drive on towards Alexandria. He had everything to gain, but he had not counted on the frenzied resistance of the French at Bir Hakeim, which cost him ten days. Those ten days were precious, they allowed the 8th Army to fall back in relatively good order, and re group on the El Alamein Line.

To describe the fighting at Bir Hakeim would be to describe hell, fire, steel, dust, flies and thirst, that old familiar companion of the Legionnaires from the Sahara. On the night of June 10th, their mission fulfilled, the French fought their way out of the strong point and re grouped to the east, at the southern end of the Alamein Line.

At the beginning of November 1942, the Americans landed in Morocco; the second front in the west had opened. A few days earlier on October 23rd, Montgomery had opened his attack from the Alamein Line. The Legion’s mission was to take the plateau of El Himeimat on the edge of the Qattara Depression. It was there, at 9.930am on October 24th, that Colonel Amilakvari, now commander of the 13th DBLE was killed.

Re formed during the following winter, the 13th DBLE took part in the advance to Tunisia in early 1943. There they met the brothers in arms, the Legionnaires from Algeria, who had returned to the fray at the end of 1942, attacking the Axis forces from the Algerian frontier.


German Element

In World War II, the French Foreign Legion fought against the Germans with its usual élan, but it was almost destroyed by the disparate elements within its own ranks.

At first the intelligence officers at the headquarters of the French Foreign Legion in Sidi-Bel-Abbes, Algeria, were puzzled. The Legion had always had a large complement of Germans in its ranks, but now, in spite of the Nazis widespread campaign to discourageGermans from enlisting, even larger numbers were pouring in.

In the late 1930s, as more and more young Germans were joining the famous fighting force, the German press was violently attacking it, and the Nazi government demanded that recruiting be stopped. Books about the Legion were publicly burned in Germany, and violence against Legion recruiting reached comic heights when propaganda Minister Josef Goebbel’s department claimed that innocent young Germans were being hypnotized into joining. In 1938, a professional hypnotist named Albert Zagula was actually arrested in Karlsruhe and charged with the offence.

Still the Germans kept joining until half the privates and 80 percent of the noncommissioned officers in the Legion were German. Eventually, it became evident that this influx had been orchestrated by German intelligence, the Abwehr, to destroy the Legion from within. The new German Legionnaires came close to achieving the Abwehr’s objective.

The French Foreign Legion had always attracted the dispossessed of every land, and in the 1930s there were plenty of refugees throughout Europe. First there were Spaniards, the losers in that country’s civil war, then there were the Jews and others fleeing Nazi persecution, later, Czechs and Poles were added to the list as the German army began its march acroos Europe. These recruits did not mix well with the non-Germans in the Legion. The German noncommissioned officers terrorized the non-Germans under their charge. There were frequent fights and court martial’s. The officers could not trust their own noncommissioned officers. Morale in the Legion plummeted, and there was even some talk of disbanding the entire corps.

When war was declared in 1939, the situation was critical. To ease the problem, large numbers of German Legionnaires were shipped off to desert outposts, and the ranks filled with additional non-German refugees. But the French authorities still thought that there were too man7y Germans in the ranks, many possibly loyal Nazis, to risk sending the Legion to fight in Europe. Instead, four more foreign regiments were raised in France and trained by veteran Legion officers from North Africa. These Legionnaires garrisoned the Maginot Line, the string of concrete fortresses that the French built as their main defense against Germany. There, they remained inactive during the so- called "Phony War", when neither the Allies nor the Germans took any serious offensive action.

In spite of the general reluctance to send entire Legion units to France, the French authorities decided that something had to be done with those loyal elements of the Legion that were still marking time in North Africa and itching for a fight. In early 1940, the old Legion was given an active role. Volunteers were called for, and two battalions of 1,000 men each were assembled, one in Fez, Morocco, and the other in Sidi-Bel-Abbes. Volunteers for those units were carefully screened, and the only Germans left then were veteran Legionnaires of unquestioned loyalty. Those men were given new non-German names and false identity papers to protect them in case the Germans captured them.

The two battalions were joined into the 13th Demi-Brigade (13e Demi-Brigade de la Legion Etrangere) and put under the command of Lt. Col. Margrin-Verneret, one of those military eccentrics who so often turned up in the Foreign Legion a hard bitten graduate of St. Cyr and a veteran of World War 1.

As a result of wounds received in World War I, he had physical disabilities that should long since have disqualified him from service. Severe head wounds had been crudely operated on and left him with a nasty temper, and surgery on a smashed limb had shortened one leg, causing a noticeable limp. But he was a fighter, and that was all the Legion wanted.

When the 13th Demi-Brigade arrived in France, the always-blasé Legionnaires showed no surprise when they were issued a strange new type of uniform, and shis. Those veterans of the desert sands were being trained to fight in Artctic snows and outfitted as mountain troops with heavy parkas, boots and snow capes. They were bound for Finland, where the Allies were aiding the Finns in their fight against the invading Soviets, who were at that time in league with the Germans. But before the Legion left France, the Finns bowed to the overwhelming power of the Soviets and accepted the enemy’s terms. The war in Finland was over.

But there was another fight. Winston Churchill, then Britain’s fist lord of the Admiralty, had urged the mining of the waters around neutral Norway, where the German navy was escorting convoys of iron ore shipped from neutral Sweden to supply the German war machine.

At the same time, Adolf Hitler had decided that the Germans must seize Norway, not only to protect the ore shipments but as a naval base for surface raiders and U-boats. Soon fierce sea battles raged between the Royal Navy and the Kreigsmarine, and at sea the British had the upper hand.

Strong British land forces were also shipped to Norway, but the Germans invaded the country. By April 1940, the Germans had occupied all of the main Norwegian West Coast ports from Narvik in the north to Kristiansand in the south and around the tip of the peninsula to Oslo, the capital. British and Norwegian forces fought hard, but without success. The British were ordered to evacuate Norway.

The Allies had one more card to play. Although they had to abandon southern Norway, the Allies would attempt to wrest the northern port of Narvik from the Germans to prevent ore shipment. An amphibious assault was planned under the overall command of British Lt. Gen. Claude Auchinleck, with the protective guns of the Royal Navy and using mainly French and Polish troops. A key part of this force would be the 13th Demi-brigade.

When his subordinates asked why the 13th Demi-Brigade was going to Norway, Margrin-Verneret’s oft-quoted reply was typical of the Legionnaires "ours-is-not-to-reason-why attitude. "Why? My orders are to take Narvik. Why Narvik? for the iron ore, for the anchovies, for the Norwegians? I haven’t the faintest idea."

The 13th Demi-Brigade was part of a task force called the 1st Light Division, which was commanded by French General Marie Emile Bethouart. The force also included units of the French 27th Chasseurs Alpins and the Polish 1st Carpathian Demi-Brigade; a mountain corps made up of refugees from conquered Poland. There were also many Norwegian units in the area still able to fight.

The plan was to sail up the series of fjords that led to the port of Narvik under the protection of the Royal Navy, which still controlled the Norwegian Sea. The 13th Demi-Brigade was to strike directly at Narvik, with its flanks guarded by the French and Polish Mountain troops and the Norwegians.

Opposing the Legionnaires was the German garrison under General Edouard Dietl, reinforced by the 137th Gebirgsjager regiment, a veteran mountain unit hastily drilled as paratroopers and dropped into the snow-covered hills. These tough, well-trained mountain troops were as proud of their edelweiss insignia as the Legion was of its seven-flamed grenade. They would be hard to crack.

Before the 13th Demi-Brigade could attack Narvik itself, the nearby village of Bjerkvik had to be taken, for the high ground behind it dominated the strategic port. On May 13, the 13th Demi-Brigade was landed on the Bjerkvik beaches. At midnight, the big guns of the British battleship Resolution, the cruisers Effingham and Vindictive and five destroyers opened up on the German defenders. Shortly thereafter, the advance troops hit the beaches in infantry and tank landing craft. It was the first time in the war that such combined operations took place in the face of enemy fire.

The German reaction was severe. At first light, the Luftwaffe came out, bombing and strafing the ships and beaches. The Legion pushed on in the face of artillery and small-arms fire. Colonel Magrin-Verneret waded ashore, encouraging his legionnaires forward. For a while it was touch and go. Captain Dmitri Amilakvari, a 16-year Legion veteran who was to take a key hill, was held up by furious German fire. Then, shouting "A moi la Legion!" (The Legion's traditional version of "follow me") to his men, he charged up the slope.

The Germans fell back before the savagery of the attack, and the hill was taken. Amilakvari pushed on to Elvenes where he met up with the Chasseurs Alpins on his flank. Bjerkvik, now a smoking ruin, and the surrounding mountains fell to the French. Then the Legion turned its attention to Narvik itself. In a repeat of the Bjerkvik attack, the port was bombarded from the sea while allied troops poured over the surrounding mountains. Once again the Luftwaffe appeared and bombed the attacking warships, but Royal Air Force Hawker Hurricane fighters arrived on the scene in the nick of time and cleared the sky of German aircraft. On May 28, the 13th Demi-Brigade marched into Narvik and found the town deserted. The Germans had fled.

For the next few days, the legionnaires pursued the retreating enemy through the snow-covered mountains toward the Swedish border in sub-zero temperatures. Their aim was to capture Dietl and what was left of his troops or force them over the border into Swedish internment. They were just 10 miles from Sweden when they were ordered to return to France. A few weeks earlier the Germans had begun their invasion of the Low Countries, and the "phony war" was over. All the troops and equipment in Norway were needed in the defense of France. The 13th Demi-Brigade embarked for Brest happy with its victory, the first allied success of the war, but disgusted that it had not been permitted to finish the job.

Meanwhile, those hastily raised Foreign Legion regiments at the Maginot Line were getting a baptism of fire. Much has been written of the defeat of the French army in 1940, but little is heard of the heroism of many of its beleaguered units. One of those heroic units was the 11th Foreign Legion Infantry (REI). The regiment was a cadre of tough legionnaires from North Africa and recent foreign volunteers enlisted in Europe, reinforced by a battalion of unwilling French draftees. The Frenchmen disliked being thrown in with the infamous Foreign Legion, and the result was not pleasant.

In training during the "phony war" period there was much drunkenness, fighting and courts-martial, but when the German panzers broke through in May, the dissension among the 11th REI's elements disappeared. While other French regiments were caught up in the panic, turned tail and ran before the overwhelming terror of the German tanks and Junkers Ju-87 Stuka dive bombers, the 11th REI stood firm. During two weeks of hard fighting, they held off their attackers while other French units retreated around them. Finally, almost totally surrounded, they were forced to fall back. Colonel Jean-Baptiste Robert burned the regimental standard and buried its tassel, which was later dug up and returned to the Legion. There were only 450 men of the original 3,000 left to return to North Africa with the 11th REI after the armistice.

The 97th Foreign Legion Divisional Reconnaissance Group (GERD 97) also attained glory during the 1940 debacle. It was probably the only all-veteran North African outfit of the Legion regiments in France. GERD 97 had been organized from the 1st Foreign Legion Cavalry Regiment, the Legion horse cavalry outfit that had been raised in Africa in the 1920s from the remnants of White Russian General Baron Pyotr Wrangel's cavalry, which had been all but destroyed in the civil war against the Bolsheviks. Mechanized and outfitted with obsolete armored cars, GERD 97 carried out reconnaissance missions, but its scouting days came to an end when it ran into the powerful German Mark III tanks. In typical Legion style, GERD 97 threw itself against those monsters without hesitation, fighting rear-guard actions to cover the retreating French. GERD 97 managed to survive until June 9, when a final, suicidal charge against the panzers left all the Legion vehicles burning. There were no known survivors.

The 97th Foreign Legion Divisional Reconnaissance Group (GERD 97) also attained glory during the 1940 debacle. It was probably the only all-veteran North African outfit of the Legion regiments in France. GERD 97 had been organized from the 1st Foreign Legion Cavalry Regiment, the Legion horse cavalry outfit that had been raised in Africa in the 1920s from the remnants of White Russian General Baron Pyotr Wrangel's cavalry, which had been all but destroyed in the civil war against the Bolsheviks. Mechanized and outfitted with obsolete armored cars, GERD 97 carried out reconnaissance missions, but its scouting days came to an end when it ran into the powerful German Mark III tanks. In typical Legion style, GERD 97 threw itself against those monsters without hesitation, fighting rear-guard actions to cover the retreating French. GERD 97 managed to survive until June 9, when a final, suicidal charge against the panzers left all the Legion vehicles burning. There were no known survivors.

The 13th Demi-Brigade returned to France from Norway, sailing into the harbor at Brest on June 13, almost at the same time the Germans were marching into Paris. Colonel Magrin-Verneret was ordered to form a line as part of the proposed last-ditch "Breton Redoubt," but it was no use. The Germans had broken through. While on a forward reconnaissance mission to determine what could be done to delay the enemy, Magrin-Verneret and some of his officers became separated from the main body of the 13th Demi-Brigade, and when they returned to Brest they could not find any trace of the unit. The reconnaissance party assumed that the main body had been over-run, and the colonel determined that he and his companions should try to get to England, where the British planned to fight on. Every boat seemed to have been taken over by fleeing British and French troops, but the Legion officers finally found a launch that took them to Southampton. troops, but the Legion officers finally found a launch that took them to Southampton. Miraculously, most of the 13th Demi-Brigade had already found a way to get there.

On June 18 General Charles de Gaulle, now himself a refugee in England, announced: "France has lost a battle, but France has not lost the war!" Magrin-Verneret immediately offered the services of the 13th Demi-Brigade to the new Free French movement, and soon they were in training at Trentham Park Camp near Stoke-on-Trent. On June 25, the French­German­Italian armistice was signed. The men of the 13th Demi-Brigade were given a choice: fight on with de Gaulle, or return to North Africa, which was now under the control of Marshal Henri Philippe Petain's newly formed Vichy government. The 1st Battalion, strongly influenced by Captain Amilakvari, elected to stay with de Gaulle. The 2nd Battalion went back to Morocco and was disbanded.

The French Foreign Legion, like the rest of the French Empire, was now sharply divided. The 13th Demi-Brigade had given its allegiance to the Free French, while the rest of the Legion, scattered throughout North Africa, Syria and Indochina, remained under the thumb of the Vichy government, which meant being under the sharp watch of the German Armistice Commission. The Germans demanded that the men they had planted in the Legion be returned to the Reich, and the Legion was not sorry to see them go. But the commission had other, not so welcome demands. They had lists of refugee Jews; Germans, Poles, Czechs, Italians and others who they wanted back, to send to concentration camps.

There were many men in the French army in North Africa, particularly in the Legion, who had no sympathy for the Vichy government and hated the Germans. Besides, the Legion had a reputation for taking care of its own. Its intelligence system usually discovered the Armistice Commission's visits well in advance and knew the names of the legionnaires on the lists. The wanted legionnaires were given with new names, new papers and new identity discs. When the Germans came too close, the refugees would be transferred to far-off Saharan outposts where the commission seldom took the trouble to visit.

Part of the armistice agreement required that French forces surrender all but the most basic weapons. The Legion defied this order and buried or otherwise secreted in remote areas much of its more useful materiel. Many of the Legion's officers and men in North Africa would have liked to join de Gaulle's forces, but outright desertion did not appeal to them and surrounding mountains and desert prevented them from reaching the Free French in any great numbers. The Legion units in North Africa simply had to bide their time.

The two elements of the Legion even took on a different appearance. The main body in North Africa still wore the French army prewar uniform--a baggy tunic and breeches with ancient roll puttees--while the Free French wore British-style battle dress or tropical shorts, plus occasional odds and ends left over from the Norwegian campaign. Both Vichy and Free French Legionnaires wore the traditional white kepi of the Legion and displayed its grenade insignia. The Vichy Legion in North Africa was not only constantly harassed by the Armistice Commission but was short of weapons, gasoline and sometimes even food and tobacco.

Legion strength fell to less than 10,000 men, and the Germans continually urged the Vichy authorities to disband it altogether. Morale was at rock bottom, and the rate of desertions and suicides was rising. The 13th Demi-Brigade, on the other hand, was refitted, and new members were added to its ranks.

The 13th Demi-Brigade's first adventure with de Gaulle was a failure. A battalion under Dmitri Amilakvari, now a lieutenant colonel, left Britain on June 28 bound for Dakar, the principal port of French West Africa. It was part of a large convoy escorted by British and French warships, and the battalion was on the same headquarters ship as de Gaulle himself. The French general's plan was to talk this important colony into supporting the Free French cause and becoming the base for all future operations. But de Gaulle had miscalculated. The governor general of the colony, Pierre Boisson, was loyal to the Vichy government, and a brief but violent naval engagement ensued. Not wanting to risk his ground troops, of which the Legion battalion was a major part, de Gaulle decided not to try an amphibious assault on the heavily fortified port. Bitterly disappointed, he ordered the convoy to sail down the African coast to Douala in the Cameroons, which was already on the Free French side.

For months, the 13th Demi-Brigade marked time in the Cameroons while the allied authorities decided where to send it next. Then in December, the two battalions-- reunited under Colonel Magrin-Verneret, now called "Colonel Monclar"--left on a long sea journey around the Cape of Good Hope, up the East Coast of Africa and into the Red Sea. On January 14, the Legionnaires disembarked at Port Sudan, then British territory. A rail trip took them into the desert where they were to prepare to serve as an adjunct to the main British force in an attack on Italian Eritrea. Just south of the Sudan, Eritrea was mostly stark desert. Lieutenant John F. Halsey, an American newly commissioned in the Legion, described the days of training that followed. "Sand and heat nagged and plagued us. The air was hot and dry and the sun was merciless. It burned and scorched necks and the exposed skin between the bottoms of shorts and the tops of socks. It glared on desert sand, on the rocky shale bear of vegetation, on the hills. There was no shade." That was how it appeared to a new officer, but to many of the Legion veterans, it seemed like old times. Halsey noted that his men "broke into cliques and gathered in circles on the sand at various halts, stretching out, apparently unmindful of the sun and sand. They bore up under the training easily." Had Halsey been with the Legion longer, perhaps he would not have been so surprised.

The Eritrean campaign turned out to be a triumph for the 13th Demi-Brigade, but not an easy one. The first Italians they met--in the mountains around Keren--were tough, determined Alpini who resisted the legionnaires with skill and courage. It took several days of hard fighting before the Italians broke and surrendered in large numbers. The Legion seized nearly 1,000 prisoners.

After the battle at Keren, the Legion was off to Massawa, the chief Red Sea port of Eritrea and the last principal city in the country to hold out against the Allies. The outskirts of Massawa were protected by a series of fortifications, dominated by Fort Victor Emanuele. After British artillery heavily bombarded the fort, the 13th Demi-Brigade was ordered to take it. First, the legionnaires had to clean out--with bayonet and grenade--Italian machine-gun emplacements in the surrounding hills. Then they scaled the walls of the fort. When the legionnaires gained the fort the defenders, who up to that point had resisted fiercely, lost heart and surrendered. On the afternoon of April 10, 1941, Colonel Monclar and two truckloads of legionnaires entered Massawa. Eritrea was now wholly in Allied hands.

After the French army was routed in the Battle of France, the Allies had been somewhat skeptical of the abilities of some French military units. After Keren and Massawa, that attitude changed, and when the situation in Syria became serious, the British did not hesitate to seek the aid of French troops. Syria and Lebanon, the lands known as the Levant, had been under French mandate since World War I. The British had tried to avoid any armed conflict with the Vichy forces that controlled the region. Those forces had variously been estimated at between 35,000 and 80,000 strong, all under the command of General Henri Dentz. Among those forces was the 6th REI, the tough, desert-hardened Foreign Legion regiment that had garrisoned Syria for many years.

The Levant was of extreme strategic importance. German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was threatening Egypt from the west, and if German forces penetrated the Levant, the Suez Canal and the Middle East, with its vital oil, would be menaced. The Germans were demanding the use of ports and airfields in Syria and Lebanon, and the Vichy French were complying. The Allies could not tolerate this. On Sunday, June 8, 1941, a hastily assembled allied force of about four divisions crossed the Palestine and Jordan borders into Syria. The polyglot army, including British, Australian and Indian troops and a Jewish contingent from Palestine, was later joined by the Free French.

The French complement was itself a colorful mixture. Centered around the 13th Demi-Brigade, it was composed of French Marine infantry, Senegalese Tirailleurs, North African spahis and a cavalry unit of Cherkesses. The latter were refugee Circassian Muslims who in past years had fled from czarist persecution and settled in Syria. Led by Frenchmen, they had deserted the Vichy authorities en masse, crossed into Jordan and joined the Free French forces. Dressed in colorful Cossacklike uniforms, they were expert horsemen and fierce fighters. As he had at Dakar, de Gaulle hoped that the Vichy regime in Syria would turn its coat and join the Free French, but it was not to be. Dentz obeyed his orders from Vichy France and resisted the invasion. The battle for Syria was sad for all the French forces, but particularly so for the soldiers of the Foreign Legion. Not only was it Frenchman against Frenchman, but in the case of the 13th Demi-Brigade, it was the Free French Legion against the Vichy Legion. For a military unit whose motto was "Legio Nostra Patria", "the Legion is our country," it was a family fight.

The Free French Legionnaires crossed into Syria from Palestine in the only transport that could be scraped together, a bunch of rickety civilian trucks, cars and buses that kept breaking down at various inopportune moments. The 13th Demi-Brigade, along with elements of the 7th Australian Division, was given the objective of taking Damascus. The march was similar in many ways to the Eritrean experience. Suffocating heat, blowing sand, burning sun, shortages of water all made the march sheer hell--the Legion was in its element. After several days in the desert, the 13th Demi-Brigade reached the hilly country near Damascus, where the fighting began in earnest. The Legion had no air support and no anti-aircraft artillery, and Vichy French planes took a heavy toll. The Legion was bereft of any effective anti-tank weapons, and it appeared they would be overrun by the Vichy tanks, but at the last moment Free French World War I-vintage 75mm artillery came to the rescue, firing point-blank and destroying the tanks.

Furious infantry fighting erupted all along the line as the Legion slowly advanced toward Damascus. On the outskirts of the city, the 13th Demi-Brigade met its brother legionnaires of the Vichy 6th REI face to face. The 13th Demi-Brigade hesitated--were the other legionnaires friends or enemies? They stared at each other for what seemed to be a very long time. Finally, the 13th sent out a patrol. As it approached the Vichy outpost, the Vichys turned out a guard who smartly presented arms--then took the patrol prisoner! It was a typically Legion like gesture, a demonstration of respect from one legionnaire to another. It was also the signal to begin the fight, and attack was followed by counterattack, bayonet charge by grenade assault. In the end, the Vichyites were overpowered, and the 6th REI fell back. On July 21, the 13th Demi-Brigade, battered, bloody and exhausted, marched into Damascus in triumph.

There was heavier fighting before all the Vichy forces in the Levant capitulated. An armistice, signed on July 14, gave the Vichy troops the opportunity to join the Free French. About 1,000 survivors of the 6th Regiment came over to the 13th Demi-Brigade, enough to form a third battalion. The dead of both sides were buried together. That battle was the end of the division in the Legion that had begun with the Nazi infiltration just before the war. The Syrian affair was the last time the Legion was at war with itself.

Legion units made a token resistance to the American invasion of North Africa in November 1942, but they soon turned about and marched against the Germans in Tunisia. By that time, the 13th Demi-Brigade had joined the British Eighth Army to defeat the Axis forces and chase Rommel out of Egypt and across North Africa.

Rearmed and equipped by the U.S. Army, Legion units fought the Germans in Tunisia, Italy and France. By war's end, the triumphant notes of the Boudin, the Legion's marching song, could be heard from the banks of the Danube to the French Alps.


Tunisia

Shortly after the American landings, the French Army of Africa had mobilized, and prepared to take up the fight again. The Legion was well represented. In December of 1942, the 3rd Foreign Infantry Marching Regiment (3rd REIM) was formed, and later, with elements shipped up from garrisons in Senegal, the 1st REIM. The cavalry also formed an independent reconnaissance group, and this was the first unit to see action. January the 11th of 1943, it attacked and drove back the enemy at Foum-el-Gouafel. Taking two hundred prisoners and thirty 47mm guns.

A few days later, the 3rd REIM, operating alongside the British in the direction of Djebel Mansour, clashed hard against Von Arnim’s tanks. French equipment, even the much newer equipment of the Americans, was no match for Tiger Tanks, and the 3rd REIM suffered heavy casualties. But the Legionnaires had their revenge. In April, the allies advanced and, on May 9th, the 3rd REIM took Zaghouan. By the time of the cease-fire on May 11th, the regiment had prisoners. The whole of Africa was liberated, now all eyes turned towards Europe.


Italy

Reorganized and brought up to strength in personnel and equipment, the men of the 13th DBLE embarked for Italy at thee end of April 1944. They arrived late in the campaign, they knew it, and were eager to make up for lost time. General Juin would give them their opportunity. From the 13th to the 22nd May, from San Giorgio to Liri, the Legion was in the thick of the fighting to pierce the Adolf Hitler line. By 25th May, it was done, the way was clear to Rome. After a brief respite in the Eternaal City, the 13th DBLE went back into the line on June 15th. Two days later it ran up against the enemy before Radicofani. This battle was crowned by a difficult but decisive victory. The road to Lake Bolzano lay open, and on July 3rd the French entered Siena.

Nevertheless, Italy remained a secondary front. A month earlier, on June 6th 1944, the British and Americans landed in Normandy. It was clear that is was in France that the real campaign of Liberation, promising final victory, was now beginning.

On 16th August 1944, at 6pm, the 13th DBLE landed at Cacalaire in the south of France. The next day, it cleared the Hyeres salt marshes and the area of Carqueiranne, taking more than three hundred prisoners. Then, after the liberation of Toulon, the Legionnaires started a mad dash to the north in the direction of autumn, where they captured a column of three thousand Germans. (Shortly before reaching Belfort, the 13th DBLE incorporated into its ranks a complete battalion of White Russians serving in the Wehrmacht).

At the end of December 1944, the 13th DBLE was pulled out of the drive to the east and sent to reduce the stubborn German pockets of resistance which had been holding out on the Atlantic coast since august. Returning to Alsace, the 13th took part in the defense of Strasbourg, and subsequently in the taking of Colmar. There it fought side by side with the RMLE, the re-born Foreign Legion Marching Regiment of 1915-18, now reconstituted from the garrisons of North Africa to fight once again in a battle for France. Alongside the RMLE in the new 5th Armored Division was the 1st REC, equipped with American armour.

The rancour of the past was forgotten, the Legionnaires of Bir Hakeim fought shoulder to shoulder with their brothers from Africa. In January 1945, in a new departure, the 13th DBLE revived their original mountain tradition and moved into the Alps to take part in the re-conquest of the Authion Massif stubbornly held by the Italians. It was there that the cease fire on May 8th 1945 found them.

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Post by 1jasonoz » 13 Jan 2004 12:28

One question, what would have happened(if it did), that a person say an Australian or UK citizen stayed loyal to the Vichy FFL, and was later captured. Would he be treated as a POW, or as a traitor to his home country?

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David Lehmann
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Post by David Lehmann » 13 Jan 2004 14:37

Do you mean an Australian or UK citizen of the Foreign Legion in the Vichy army ? Well, I guess he would be only a POW, he is wearing a uniform etc. and according to the Geneva commission, the commonly admitted rules of war etc.

By the way you cannot put together FFL and Vichy :
- from 1941 to 1943 you have the FFL = 'forces françaises libres' (Free French Forces) and after 1943 you have only the French Army. In fact, since the 14th july 1942, the general De Gaulle employed the denomination 'France Combattante' (Fighting France) for all the French troops participating to the liberation effort, including the resistance which gave rise to the FFI ='Forces Françaises de l'Intérieur' (French Forces from the Interior).
- from 1940/1941 to 1942/1943 you have on the other side the Vichy Army also called the Army of the Armistice .... with a small component in France and essentially a muche more powerful component in North Africa.

But in fact to return to your question, for example the French army captured French SS soldiers fighting with the Germans ... thay wer enjailed but it is also well known that Leclerc's 2eDB killed 4 (if I remember well) of these POWs. In fact he questionned them to know why the were wearing this foreign uniform ... and they ask he was also wearing a foreign uniform (US equipments).

Regards,

David
Last edited by David Lehmann on 19 Jan 2004 02:21, edited 1 time in total.

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Post by Cory C » 13 Jan 2004 23:20

Thanks very much, Panzermeyer! :)


~Cory

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Foreign Legion 1939-1942

Post by Octavianus » 19 Jan 2004 01:54

Ave amici,

Interesting discussion. Panzermeyer, do you think for example that a British Legionnaire from 6. REI in French Levant would be allowed to enter the ranks of the British Army after having just previously fighting against them? :-) Odd thing is that I have read somewhere that during the 1940-1942 many several French officers of the Legion in Algiers and Marocco considered and some even actually applied for the service on the East Front.

Also are there any records of how many legionnaires were killed at Narvik in 1940? I am also looking for a rooster of 13. DBLE at Narvik if such thing exists. The rumour has it that several Austrians and Slovenes probably went with the half-brigade to Norway and I would like to know if this is true. Any suggestions?

Gratiam,

Octavianus

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Post by David Lehmann » 19 Jan 2004 03:43

Hello,

I am not sure at all that there was any British in the 6e REI at that time, but I never supposed he would be integrated in the British army, I just said that according to me, he would probably be treated like a POW and not as a traitor. He is wearing an uniform and should be considered as a POW I guess.

Only several members of the LVF were WWI and/or Rif war (Morocco 1925-1927) veterans and other were officers commanding in the Levant (Syria, Lebanon) or in North Africa before integrating the LVF.
I know that for example the first LVF commander was Henri Labonne, 61 years, a colonel who commanded the RICM (Régiment d'infanterie colonial du Maroc) but in 1918. He was rather quickly dismissed, too old.
Henri Lacroix commanding the I. Battalion is also a WWI veteran who also served in the Army of the Levant.
Lieutnant Maurice Berret is one of the very rare volunteer from the French active troops. He was commander of the 10th Cie of the III. Batallion of the LVF. He was lieutnant in the 23e RTA (Régiment de tirailleurs algériens) in France in 1940. Most of the men are young and other are reservists or old veterans, there were not many from active units of the French army.
Colonel Ducrot commanding the III. Batallion was also colonel in the French colonial infantry and I forgot the name of another officer who commanded a colonial cavalry unit in North Africa before.

About the 13e DBLE in Narvik I will try to find something, but the Foreign Legion was only a small part of the units sent in Norway :
http://france1940.free.fr/oob/cefs.html

Raised in 1940 at Sidi-Bel-Abbes to support Finland in its war against the Soviet Union, 13e DBLE was sent instead to Norway where it received its baptism of fire and won at Narvik. Serving with the Free French, 13e DBLE fought brilliantly until the end of the war. Battle Honours: Camerone 1863, Bjervik-Narvik 1940, Keren 1941, Massounh 1941, Bir Hakeim 1942, El alamein 1942, Rome 1944, Colmar 1945, Authion 1945, Indochine 1945-1954. The flag is decorated with the yellow and green Medaille Militaire lanyard with one 'olive' in the colours of the Croix de Guerre 1945 and one in the colours of the Croix de Guerre TOE (overseas operations), Croix de Compagnon de la Liberation, the Rosette de la Resistance, the Croix de Guerre 1939-1945 with four 'palmes' and the Norwegian War Cross with Sword. Garrisoned at Quartier Montclar in Djibouti.

The 13e DBLE lost 7 officers and 60 men, most of them in the 1st battalion during the 28th May 1940.
The commander of the unit was a WWI veteran during which he was wounded 17 times and ibn 1940 he has been serving in the Foreign Legion
for 15 years.

Regards,

David

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Narvik 1940

Post by Octavianus » 20 Jan 2004 01:14

Ave Panzermeyer,

Yes, you are probably right about no british legionnaires in 6e REI. As far as I know most of them were coming from East Europe with a thin batch of Spaniards and others. I am curious, do you know if there was ever published any book in France about the performance of 6e REI in the Syria Campaign 1941?

I am not sure at all that there was any British in the 6e REI at that time, but I never supposed he would be integrated in the British army, I just said that according to me, he would probably be treated like a POW and not as a traitor. He is wearing an uniform and should be considered as a POW I guess.

>>>>The 13e DBLE lost 7 officers and 60 men, most of them in the 1st battalion during the 28th May 1940.>>>>

Interesting piece of information, Panzermyer. Is there any chance of getting the names of these 67 killed legionnaires? Or even better: the names of the legionnaires who went to Narvik?

>>>>The commander of the unit was a WWI veteran during which he was wounded 17 times and ibn 1940 he has been serving in the Foreign Legion for 15 years.>>>>

Was this perhaps Capitaine GUINECHEAULT who was killed in action in Narvik in May 1940?

Sorry for these annoying questions from my side about the Legion. I have had an older brother who was in the Legion in Algeria. Hence my interest in the Legion. :)

Gratiam,

Octavianus

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David Lehmann
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Post by David Lehmann » 20 Jan 2004 17:33

Hello I have no complete roster for the 13e DBLE in Narvik but I have also no specific documents about this units ... perhaps you will find some interesting sources by looking in specific books.

The commander of the 13e DBLE who was a WWI hero was Colonel Magrin-Vernerey.
On 1st March 1940 the unit was composed of 2 battalions with 55 officers and 2194 men.

I know there were a few Spaniards like soldier Gayoso who destroyed a German MG nest with grenades.

Otherwise I have a few officer names :
- Commandant Guéninchault (was commander of the 2nd battalion)
- Lieutenant Garoux
- Lieutenant Vadot
- Lieutenant Amilakvari
- Capitaine Guittaut (commander of the 1st Co, 1st Bat)
- Capitaine Gilbert (commander of the 2nd Co, 1st Bat)

Sorry I have no more precise info for you.

Regards,

David

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Re: The French Foreign Legion during the occupation of Franc

Post by colt45 » 17 Aug 2011 23:01

Image..... saw a photo of 100 in cammo and white kepis,,, just one with a blue kepi , is he the Sgt.?

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Re: The French Foreign Legion during the occupation of Franc

Post by colt45 » 18 Aug 2011 17:41

Image

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