The “Vichy” Legion


The defeat of France in 1940 and the restriction by the Germans of the French army to one hundred men brought to the Legion the inevitable problems of demobilization. And none was to prove more difficult to resolve than the status of those foreigners who had volunteered to serve for the duration of the war, either as legionnaires or in the RMVE. In this respect, Vichy did not mark a radical departure from the policies toward refugees of the Third republic, but a continuation and intensification of those policies. However, in the aftermath of a defeat whose roots seemed too deep to be attributed to mere military mistakes or incompetence, refugees, and especially Jewish refugees, became associated in the minds of the Vichy elite with the now-intensified problems of unemployment and the “purity” of French culture. Furthermore, their presence was an embarrassment to Vichy officials eager to prove their neutrality to their German captors. Therefore, the volunteers for the duration were demobilized, and in the process stripped of the military status that might have protected them from German reprisals. Some were simply returned to the streets, where they confronted the same problems that had bedeviled many of them before 1939—lack of working papers or a residence permit, which some Vichy prefects refused to deliver despite previous military service. Therefore, Vichy fell back on the old policy of internment.

A law of September 27, 1940, reinforced on November 28, 1941, required all those considered “superfluous to the national economy” or without evident means of support to be interned. Therefore, some volunteers never tasted the delights, however brief, of freedom following the armistice, but were simply told that they were demobilized but interned. Labor camps, known as groupements de travailleurs étrangers or GTE, were created in the “free” or southern zone of France not occupied by the Germans, for men between eighteen and fifty-five who had arrived in France after January 1, 1936. Many did so voluntarily, including ex-volunteers for the duration, to obey the law, to avoid starvation or escape internment camps, because the promises of work and steady pay were attractive, or because the alternative was to go underground. These camps often became the first stage of deportation to Germany, especially for Jews, who began to be separated from other workers in “Palestinian” GTE groups. The massive deportation of these groups to Germany began in August 1942, not, as recent research has shown, because Germany demanded them but because French Prime Minister Pierre Laval saw this as a way to ingratiate himself with Hitler and gain concessions.

Some ex-volunteers were shipped to GTE camps in North Africa reserved for “undesirables,” where they met volunteers for the duration whom the war had stranded there. These camps had no formal links to the Legion, even if some ex-Legion officers and NCOs served as cadres. There were other, less formal links, however, not the least of which were the former legionnaires and volunteers for the duration there, a situation most of them regarded as a betrayal of their support for the French war effort and their Legion service. The threat of internment was also used freely by Legion commanders as a threat to force legionnaires to reenlist when their terms of service expired. A report of October 21, 1942, claimed that discharged legionnaires were even taking the extreme measure of volunteering for Service de Travail Obligatoire (STO), forced labor service in Germany, because their Legion commanders refused to give them the necessary support for residence papers and they feared the North African labor camps.

Even the Legion intelligence service, the BSLE, recognized the moral dilemma these camps posed for the Legion, at least in part, when it protested the treatment of ex-legionnaires in a report of August 28, 1941. In the category of “undesirables” consigned to the camps were included legionnaires whose contracts had been annulled because of disciplinary infractions, legionnaires or volunteers for the duration “judged undesirable from a national point of view,” Jewish legionnaires or volunteers for the duration, and German and Italian legionnaires who had asked for repatriation to their countries. There was a “grave malaise” in these camps because they were staffed by old NCOs who could find no other employment and whose pay was insufficient when it arrived at all. As for the inmates, whose nominal salary was fifty centimes (about two cents) a day, they often received no pay for up to three months at a time. The BSLE believed that the Legion had obligations toward some of those men, especially those who could not go home. Last, it does appear as if the Legion were at least involved in running one of these groups, designated as the compagnie de discipline des travailleurs, reserved for deserters and troublemakers from the other camps. Not surprisingly perhaps, Spanish republicans were prominent among them. This was run along the lines of the famous discipline of the Legion at Colomb-Béchar, complete with Legion NCOs. Beatings, brutal punishments and virtual starvation were said by several witnesses to be routine.

Conditions in the camps, especially those in the Sahara, created to revive the long held but elusive dream of a trans-Saharan railroad, could only be described as slave labor. The American consul in Casablanca reported that many of these ex-volunteers were kept there at the insistence of the German Armistice Commission out of fear that, if released, they would join the Allied armies. “A good deal of just indignation has been expressed in North Africa over France’s treatment of these men,” he wrote on May 15, 1942.

Many French military officers of superior rank have expressed their disgust, saying frankly that the maltreatment of these volunteers had been acquiesced in out of sheer servility to the Germans, that by doing so France had stained her honor and built up hatred and vindictiveness against herself in those men’s countries, and above all, would hardly be able to obtain either foreign or North African volunteers in any future emergency. They also admit that there will be a heavy reckoning with the North African natives afterwards.

However, the American envoy to Algiers, Robert Murphy, reported that the Germans merely served the Vichy government as an alibi to pursue a purely French policy of internment.

On a few occasions, the Vichy government did intervene in favor of the veterans of 1939–40, as in late 1942 when it pleaded for those released from German POW camps only to be rearrested by German authorities in France, and when it exempted some war veterans from deportation to death camps in Germany after mid-1942. But apart from a few high-profile political refugees, the Germans did not seek repatriation of Jews and other undesirables, but were content to allow Vichy to support German interests by confining them to concentration camps, as she did by defending her colonies against the Allies.

The Germans were keen, however, to recover their nationals still serving in the Legion, the first installment of a continuing struggle throughout the war to retain legionnaires demanded by the belligerent countries. Article XIX of the Armistice Agreement of 1940 obliged the French to turn over all German nationals on French soil, whom it would designate to German authorities. General Maxime Weygand, the Vichy government’s délégué général in North Africa, saw the ensuing “struggle for the preservation of the Foreign Legion” as part of an Axis plan to abolish the Legion, as the Italians also began to reclaim their nationals. The French tactic, Weygand decided, would be to preserve the tradition of asylum while using the German demands to shed undesirable elements. “This would give an appearance of satisfaction [while] the Legion did not suffer too much from this ‘purge/ “ he wrote.

As Weygand suggested, the smashing German victories had left many German legionnaires impatiently marooned in North Africa, many of whom “are becoming dangerous by their propaganda, especially those from Morocco,” Legion officers began to report. Philip Rosenthal, a German Jewish refugee who had abandoned his Oxford studies to enlist in the Legion to fight Hitler, found that the French collapse had made the Germans in his unit contemptuous of serving in a beaten army and eager to leave. In August 1940, around 320 Germans who had been removed from their regular units after having demanded repatriation, mostly to escape punishments, were “in a state of permanent mutiny” at Koléa, the Algerian internment camp where they were awaiting repatriation. Attempts by French officers to address them were drowned out by shouts of “Heil Hitler,” followed by “a torrent of invectives against France, her army and the Legion. . . .” On September 26, and October 9, 1940, two installments totalling 996 German legionnaires were collected for repatriation. After January 1941, the German-dominated Armistice Commission became more insistent, demanding names of Germans serving in the Legion, which seriously threatened to compromise the Legion tradition of asylum. This caused Weygand to send a group of German legionnaires to Tonkin and therefore out of reach of the Armistice Commission. However, under increasing German pressure, the Legion “sanctuary” began to crumble as names were delivered to the Armistice Commission over the protests of General Alphonse Juin, and finally on March 31, 1942, the government ordered that all German legionnaires must be interviewed by the German military delegate even if they were not volunteers for repatriation.

No doubt many Germans who wished to remain in the Legion were disguised as Czechs, Poles or Alsatians, although the Armistice Commission was not fooled by this ruse. But the pressures soon began to tell—in early 1941, French authorities acting in the best traditions of creative administration invented a loophole that allowed them to give up fifty German legionnaires whom the Reich claimed were deserters, by classifying them as POWs. Furthermore, although Legion authorities continued to protest that they only repatriated those Germans who requested it, clearly French weakness and administrative concessions on names and interviews caused many German legionnaires to lose faith in these promises. As early as September 1940, the 2e Bureau, French military intelligence, in Morocco noted that German legionnaires were asking to be returned to Germany often to avoid punishment, but also because they believed their status insecure under the armistice. A year later, the BSLE reported that “The German legionnaires are fed up with signing declarations right and left and so many loyal legionnaires have declared, They’ll finish by getting us too.’ ” Seventy-six legionnaires, including seven NCOs, asked for repatriation, “believing that it is better to volunteer now than to be forced to return later and to be opened to reprisals.” Enough German legionnaires were repatriated to allow the formation of the 361st Afrika Regiment, which was used as a labor unit until April 1942, when it was armed and its designation changed to the 361st Infantry Regiment. It fought with the Afrika Korps in the vicinity of Bir Hacheim in 1942. Most of these men must have been legionnaires of fairly ancient vintage, as those Germans coming into the Legion after 1934 were increasingly Jews and other political refugees who would not have risked repatriation. The departure of these Germans from the Legion would indicate that the Legion traditions accentuated by Rollet in the interwar years exercised little profound influence upon these men. By serving the Afrika Korps, Goebbels declared, these German legionnaires could earn rehabilitation, which after undergoing rehabilitation in the Legion must have made them the world’s most rehabilitated soldiers.

The atmosphere in the Legion in North Africa appears to have been profoundly depressing to many legionnaires. Despite claims by the BSLE in September 1941 that legionnaires in North Africa were immensely proud of the heroic resistance of the 6e étranger in Syria, it could escape the attention of no one that the Legion had been left to molder on the sidelines of the greatest conflict in world history. Enlistments had declined from 5,549 in 1940 to 2,381 by 1942, and Legion strength plummeted from a 1940 high of perhaps almost 50,000 men to 18,000, excluding of course the 13e DBLE. General Juin, contemplating these large deficits, was forced to consider the abolition of some Legion units like the 4e étranger and the reduction of others to skeletal forces, and this at a time when the army in North Africa as a whole was having no trouble filling vacancies with men eager to flee the dreary existence of occupied France. Furthermore, most of those volunteering for the Legion were Frenchmen, generally a poor recruitment source but especially so as the BSLE estimated in 1941 that fully half of them had prison records, while almost all had been excluded from enlisting in other French corps.

Although the old guard loyal to Vichy appeared to have a firm grip on the situation, clearly those legionnaires who came into the Legion to fight Hitler in 1940 were not content to be used, in the opinion of English legionnaire Anthony Delmayne, to fight undernourished natives unable to pay their taxes . . . when there were so many Nazis to be killed. Many of us had a considerable stake in the war. . . . Rumors that Vichy was going to sell us down the river filled these men with dread, and there were riots, mutinies, fights and suicides in the fort.

One such man with a stake in the war was Philip Rosenthal, future secretary of state for the Ministry of Economy and Finance of the German Federal Republic, who was taunted by his adjudant-chef “Ah, Monsieur has not left for England!” When his attempted desertion to the Spanish zone in Morocco failed, he found that his lieutenant could not comprehend any more than the adjudant-chef that he was not content any longer to give “good and loyal service to Hitler” by staying out of the war.

He attributed [my desertion attempt] simply to what one called a “coup de tête.” Like many French officers he did not indulge in politics. He was content to obey his superior. France had ceased fighting, therefore he ceased fighting. This narrow minded loyalty explains why, in the beginning, only a relatively small number of officers rallied to de Gaulle: Not because they lacked a sense of honor, but through lack of lucidity. I tried to explain my reasons, but he interrupted me immediately: “Don’t say anything that could hurt your case. I want to punish you only for illegal absence.”

Apparently neither man harbored any hard feelings, however, for in 1950 the lieutenant invited Rosenthal, who later successfully deserted and finished the war a major in the British army, for a drink in the officers mess at Meknès.

The loss of Syria in 1941 produced much the same effect upon many army officers in North Africa as Mers el Kébir had done in the French navy. Furthermore, many of the fifteen thousand soldiers of the Syrian garrison, cleverly allowed by the Germans to return to North Africa, preached a gospel of hatred and hostility to the British and Gaullists with the fervor of men who had been martyred for the faith. The French high command became more firmly convinced than ever that France could survive only by defending her neutrality and staying out of the war. But the situation was not completely under control, despite the firm grip maintained upon Sidi-bel-Abbès by the veterans of the 6e étranger. In part, this was a product of a desire to fight among professional soldiers, so much so that Colonel Barre was forced to intervene to squelch talk among some of the cadres of volunteering for the légion des volontaires français contre le bolchevisme recruited to fight in the German ranks on the eastern front.

It was only too evident that many legionnaires and some young officers were growing increasingly impatient with Vichy neutrality. Those who cared to think about the fact that Vichy’s position required them to point their guns in the same direction as those of the Germans were increasingly discontented, especially as German demands upon the French economy grew, Vichy collaboration in supporting Rommel’s campaign in the Western Desert was more obvious, the United States entered the war, and the tenacious defense of the Soviet Union increasingly gave the lie to pessimistic predictions of Moscow’s imminent collapse. More, the unmistakable air of obsolescence hung heavily over a force that tinkered with its mules and continued to build roads with traditional pick-and-shovel methods while a modern, technological war swirled around it. Rosenthal recorded that there was an agitated atmosphere in his unit caused in part by the fact that no one had any reason to be loyal to Vichy—the political refugees loathed the regime, while the Germans found it insulting to serve in a defeated army. Traditional Legion methods of controlling this sort of cafard by keeping the men busy on road mending simply served to make the situation worse. When Perrot-White was assigned to a Legion artillery battery at Port-Lyautey (Kenitra) in Morocco in August 1942, he discovered it crammed with convinced Gaullists from the commander down.

When the Allied invasion began on November 8, 1942, these divisions and doubts appear to have made some difference. Perrot-White claimed that he and his “Gaullist” battery adopted a passive attitude of not firing at the American troops, or firing wide, which failed to save them from destruction by the American planes, a fate also suffered by a convoy of Legion reinforcements sent from Fez. He only agreed to drive a truck in the evacuation after he persuaded himself that it did not constitute a “combatant act.” However, even he was disgusted when a group of Spaniards whom he believed to be part of the REC surrendered to the Americans without firing a shot: “This act I considered a blot upon the honour of the Legion,” he wrote. “Even if they did not want to fight against the Allies, they could have done the same as we had,-adopted a passive attitude and stayed where they were. Deliberately turning themselves over as prisoners was an unforgivable military crime.”

Not surprisingly, perhaps, given the high percentage of veterans of the 6e étranger in residence, the attitude of the soldiers at Sidi-bel-Abbès to the news of the invasion was more decisive. Major Rouger reported that his men “left Bel-Abbès with the conviction that they were going to do some ‘good work’ and that the enemy would have to deal with them despite their lack of armament.” However, Rouger was destined to be doubly disappointed. First, because dug in on the road between Sidi-bel-Abbès and Oran, hostilities were suspended before the fighting reached them. His only contribution to the combat that raged around Oran was to refuse to allow a convoy through whose commander, he believed, intended to defect to the Americans. News of the end to the fighting caused “consternation” and left his men crying with frustrated rage over the unavenged deaths of comrades in other regiments. His second disappointment occurred when his Legion convoy returned to Sidi-bel-Abbès to be greeted with wild enthusiasm by “a large portion of the population, especially the Jews,” under the mistaken impression that they were being liberated by the Americans.

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