The French Foreign Legion was formed in 1831 for the sole purpose of getting rid of thousands of soldiers from across Europe who had moved to France after the collapse of Napoleon’s empire. One thousand soldiers, ranging from teenagers to sixty-year-old veterans who had served in a number of European armies and wanted to return to army life, were hurriedly mobilised and the ragtag Legion was born. However, all the officers recruited were French. The Legion’s first campaign, soon after its formation, was in Algeria, which would become its natural home, away from the politics of France.
Throughout the following decades recruits to the Legion came from all parts of Europe and, according to legend, many joined to escape justice, wives, girlfriends and money lenders. In fact many were simply refugees or former soldiers who had found life too tough outside the army. After every major war in Europe during the past one hundred and fifty years the Legion has been a haven for veterans from many countries wishing to continue army life. During those years many recruits have been French, German, Spanish and Swiss, with some ten per cent British.
The Legionnaires found life very tough in Algeria, where they were engaged in a war of colonisation against tough tribesmen who fought guerrilla-style battles against the ill-prepared and poorly armed Legion.
The Algerian Arabs relied on spear-wielding cavalry and the Legion’s only defence was to form into squares and fire their muskets at the horsemen as they galloped around these formations. Hand-to-hand fighting usually ensued in which the experienced Legionnaires dominated, driving away the Arabs who weren’t killed on the field of battle.
Any captured Legionnaires were handed over to the Algerian women, who would take a delight in stripping their captives naked and indulging their whims with exquisite methods of torture which always ended in terrifying pain before the Legionnaire’s eventual death. The women would then hurl their captives’ testicles and severed heads at Legion troops passing through their villages.
The conquest of Algeria took four years, in which time the Legion became a tough fighting force. It met most of its own needs, relying on France only for weapons, ammunition and the paltry pay. Those years produced a tightly knit band of disciplined brothers who would die for one another rather than surrender to an enemy. The Legionnaires also learnt that there was no question of surrender, because death would follow automatically and sometimes in the most gruesome fashion. And slowly, through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Legion’s reputation grew, and those who served in it were treated with respect and often a little fear.
Today the French Foreign Legion consists of some eight thousand soldiers, mainly infantry and paratroopers, but it also includes a mountain division, artillery and engineers. A rapid-reaction force of some fifteen hundred men, all with Special Forces skills, is based in France, and there are also Legionnaires based in Chad, Surinam, Djibouti, French Guinea and the Comoros Islands, near Madagascar. Some six thousand men apply to join the Legion each year, but only about a thousand are accepted.
One of the Legion’s more recent and most dramatic operations was the rescue, in 1978, of some two and a half thousand European men, women and children in the copper-mining town of Kolwezi, in Zaire, after two thousand heavily armed rebels of the Congolese National Liberation Front stormed the town in a bid to steal arms and money.
These wayward rebels arrived in armoured cars in Kolwezi, and, with much firing of arms, took control of this town of some twelve thousand people. The local Zairean militia of two hundred armed soldiers offered no resistance and quickly fled, leaving the rebels in complete control. Their first target was the bars and hotels, which they shot up before drinking the town dry and then embarking on an orgy of drunkenness and violence, raping the women and shooting any man who dared to get in their way.
The rebels set up courts in the hotels and hauled local dignitaries before them, accusing them of aiding President Mobutu of Zaire, a man they described as a traitor. Every person brought before the court was found guilty and all were immediately shot. The orgy of violence and drunkenness continued. Fortunately, however, a radio operator at one of the mines managed to get a message out telling the civilised world what was going on and pleading for assistance to stop the murder and violence.
The Zairean government was not capable of putting together a military force strong enough to take on the rebels, and Belgium, the former colonial power, refused to intervene. The French came to the rescue by sending in Legionnaires from the 2nd Parachute Regiment from their base in Corsica. Within ten hours the soldiers were flying to Kinshasa, but the following day, when they were over Zaire and ready to parachute into Kolwezi, they faced major problems. They had no maps of the town, no information about the size or capability of the rebel forces and no idea where the town’s two thousand three hundred white men, women and children might be holed up. Nor did they have artillery or mortars – only grenades, rifles, sub-machine guns and light machine guns. The United States sent five Hercules C-130 transport planes to the Zairean capital, Kinshasa, to pick up the Legionnaires as they parachuted down there instead, and within hours the first batch of four hundred Legionnaires were on their way to Kolwezi. They had no idea they would be facing a rebel army of some two thousand men with mortars, medium machine guns and armoured cars.
Their orders were to make straight for the town centre because it was believed that the rebels would have herded the town’s whole population into one place. They had been warned that they would have to move at great speed because this group of Congolese rebels was renowned for killing hostages as soon as trouble arose.
The scene that greeted the Legionnaires as they entered the outskirts of Kolwezi was horrendous. Scores of swollen, decomposed bodies, both black and white, were lying around the streets, in alleys and doorways. Even young children had been massacred, their frail, thin bodies left to rot in the scorching sun, and the stench of rotting corpses filled the air.
As the Legionnaires pushed on towards the town centre the resistance became tougher, because the rebels opened up with mortars and machine guns. But the Legionnaires were taking no prisoners. They had seen that the rebels had shown their victims no mercy and they were determined to find and kill every rebel they came across. As the townspeople heard the sound of gunfire they threw caution to the wind, grabbed their children and ran towards the sound of the shooting in the hope of finding safety. This caused problems for the Legionnaires as they took aim at the rebel troops. And the fleeing women and children also provided the rebels with easy targets for their machine-gunners, who mowed down twenty or more before they reached the safety of the Legionnaires.
The townspeople were able to give valuable information to the Legion, telling them that the rebel command had taken up positions in the principal hotel and the main police station and that marauding gangs of rebels were roaming the streets, mostly drunk, and killing blacks and whites at random. They also reported that some of the rebels seemed to take great delight in torturing and killing the whites, making them dance in the street while they fired shots at their feet. When, through exhaustion, the victims could dance no longer, the rebels shot them in the head, while roaring with laughter.
The Legion knew they had to take command of the town that day and somehow hang on against overwhelming odds because the next batch of four hundred Legion paratroopers would not arrive until the next morning. The decision was taken to secure both the hotel and the police station, which could then be defended through the night. During the afternoon sections of paratroopers went into the Old Town to tackle the rebel gunmen, who could be heard firing intermittently. Firefights took place, but the rebels were no match for the accurate, disciplined Legionnaires, who had no compunction in shooting to kill every armed rebel they came across that day.
There was only one main attack which seriously tested the Legionnaires metal, and that was when the rebels took their three armoured cars into the Old Town, firing their powerful machine guns from the turrets. Behind the armoured cars came rebels who also kept up a steady stream of fire, pinning down the Legionnaires in the alleys and shanty buildings. The Legionnaires replied with grenades, which they hurled into the melee of rebel troops sheltering behind the armoured cars. It worked, and after a few minutes the rebels turned and scattered while the Legionnaires opened fire, killing some eighty of them. Fearing they might be cut off, the armoured cars withdrew and the Legionnaires went about their task of searching out armed rebels and killing them on the spot.
But the main thrust of the Legion’s first day in Kolwezi was to take the two main objectives – the hotel and the police station. First, they targeted the hotel. One platoon of Legionnaires was sent to the right flank, and when in position they opened fire on the rebels defending the building. As soon as the rebels rushed to fire at the flanking soldiers, two platoons of Legionnaires made courageous frontal assaults on the hotel, racing in firing sub-machine guns from the hip and causing so much alarm and mayhem in the hotel that the defenders simply fled rather than take on the charging paratroopers.
The police station proved more problematic because it was easier to defend. Here again the Legion officers decided on a frontal assault, but only after a flanking platoon had the defenders holed up with constant sniper fire. As dusk fell the Legionnaires once again raced towards the front of the police station, firing as they went, while those on the flank opened up with machine guns, forcing the rebels inside to lie low. Within sixty seconds the Legionnaires had reached the walls of the police station and they lobbed grenades through every window. In a bid to save themselves, a dozen rebels sprinted out of the building, but they barely made three or four yards before the Legionnaires gunned them down.
Now the Legion had two positions which could, with luck, be defended until relief arrived the next morning. But it would prove a long, hot night, for the rebel commanders repeatedly tried to recapture both buildings. At one point both the hotel and police station were surrounded by a few hundred rebels who fired non-stop for thirty minutes. But the Legionnaires handled the attacks with confidence, picking off a number of rebels, which seemed to sap the will of the others to take further action.
As the arrival of the other parachute battalion drew near, the Legionnaires turned up the heat, taking the fight to the weary and hung-over rebels. They wanted to make sure that their comrades dropping out of the skies would not receive a hostile reception. They also gambled on the fact that the Congolese rebels would not relish tackling two battalions of Legionnaires, one at their front, the other at their back. And they were right. One minute the rebels could be seen moving out of town towards the airport, and the next they seemed to be dispersing in every direction.
Legion jeeps and trucks also arrived that day, but as the second flight of four hundred paratroopers moved towards Kolwezi to link up with their comrades, the Congolese rebels decided the time had come to quit the town and escape back to the safety of Angola, from where they had come just a few days before. On their arrival the battalion had no intention of letting such butchers off the hook so lightly and pursued them relentlessly right to the Angolan border. They were shown no mercy. Some hundred or so rebels were slaughtered during their retreat.
Undeniably, the rescue of more than two thousand white men, women and children in Kolwezi was a brilliant and courageous Legion success, though they were unhappy that some two hundred and fifty whites and some two hundred blacks had been slaughtered in the most appalling circumstances by the rampaging rebels. In the entire operation the Legion suffered five dead and twenty-five wounded.