Algerian War (1954–1962)

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Algerian War 1954–1962

SS 11 missiles on a Dassault Flamant – Algerie

In 1956, using helicopters in a ground-attack role in the Algerian War.

First Foreign Legion Cavalry Regiment, Algeria 1960


The Algerian War (also known as the Algerian War of
Independence and the Algerian Revolution) was fought between Algerian
nationalists known as the Front de Libération Nationale (National Liberation
Front, FLN) and the French military between November 1, 1954, and March 19,
1962. The war led to a considerable expenditure of blood and treasure, saw some
1 million Frenchmen serve in the French Army in Algeria, claimed more than a
score of French ministries, and brought the end of the French Fourth Republic,
replaced by the Fifth Republic. The war also did not bring peace in Algeria.

France had established its control over Algeria more than a
century earlier. On June 14, 1830, a French expeditionary force of some 34,000
men commanded by Marshal Louis Auguste Victor, Count de Ghaisnes de Bourmont,
landed near Algiers. The pretext for the invasion was the insult to French
consul to Algiers Pierre Duval, who had been struck with a flyswatter by Dey
Husain in 1827. The French also sought to remove a threat to their Mediterranean
trade, but the real reason behind French king Charles X’s plan to take Algiers
was to shore up his unpopular French government, headed by Prince Jules de
Polignac, and enable it to win the 1830 national elections.

Algiers was duly taken on July 5, although Charles X’s
political gambit failed, as France experienced a revolution on July 28–30. In
this July Revolution of 1830, Charles X was forced to abdicate in favor of his
cousin Louis Philippe, Duc d’Orléans, who nonetheless decided to continue
French military operations in Algeria.

French control was initially largely limited to the coastal
areas and cities. A succession of French commanders proceeded to fight a
variety of opponents and campaigns in widely differing terrain, from the Atlas
Mountains to salt marshes and the bled (interior). Beginning in 1835, Abd
al-Qadir, emir of Mascara in western Algeria, declared jihad (holy war) and
fought the French. Following a number of battles, he was ultimately forced to
surrender in December 1847 to French general Thomas Robert Bugeaud de la
Piconnerie, who also proved to be an adroit colonial administrator.

By 1847, some 50,000 Europeans had settled in Algeria.
French control over the Algerian interior was not accomplished until the Second
Empire of Napoleon III (1852–1870), however. European settlement increased
following the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871 and the
German acquisition of Alsace and Lorraine. Many of the French who had lived in
the two provinces chose to settle in Algeria rather than be under German rule.

While more Frenchmen immigrated to Algeria, the imbalance
between them and the Muslim population ballooned. The Pax Franca brought finis
to the tribal wars and disease that had kept the population relatively static.
Another factor in the burgeoning Muslim population was the greatly improved
medical care that dramatically decreased the infant mortality rate.

Unique among French colonies, Algeria became a political
component of France, as the three French departments of Algiers, Constantine,
and Oran all had limited representation in the French Chamber of Deputies.
Nonetheless, the three Algerian departments were not like those of the
Metropole, as only the European settlers, known as colons or pieds noirs,
enjoyed full rights there. The colon and Muslim populations lived separate and
unequal lives. The Europeans controlled the vast majority of the economic
enterprises and wealth, while the Muslims tended to be agricultural laborers.
Meanwhile, the French expanded Algeria’s frontiers deep into the Sahara.

While the colons sought to preserve their status, French
officials vacillated between promoting colon interests and advancing reforms
for the Muslims. Pro-Muslim reform efforts failed because of political pressure
from the colons and their representatives in Paris. While French political
theorists debated between assimilation and autonomy for Algeria’s Muslims, the
Muslim majority were increasingly resentful of the privileged colon status.

World War I helped fuel Algerian Muslim nationalist
sentiment, but the first Muslim political organizations appeared in the 1930s,
the most important of these being Ahmed Messali Hadj’s Mouvement pour le
Triomphe des Libertés Démocratiques (Movement for the Triumph of Democratic
Liberties, MTLD). World War II brought opportunities for change. Following the
Anglo-American landings in North Africa in November 1942, Muslim activists met
with American envoy Robert Murphy and Free French general Henri Giraud
concerning postwar freedoms but received no firm commitments. However, 60,000
Algerian Muslims who had fought for France were granted French citizenship.

It came as a great shock to the French when pent-up Muslim
frustrations exploded on May 8, 1945, during the course of a victory parade approved
by French authorities celebrating the end of World War II in Europe. A French
plainclothes policeman shot to death a young marcher carrying an Algerian flag,
and this touched off a bloody rampage, often referred to as the Sétif Massacre.
Muslims attacked Europeans and their property, and violence quickly spread to
outlying areas.

The French authorities then unleashed a violent crackdown
that included Foreign Legionnaires and Senegalese troops, tanks, aircraft, and
even naval gunfire from a cruiser in the Mediterranean. Settler militias and
local vigilantes took a number of Muslim prisoners from jails and executed
them. Major French military operations lasted two weeks, while smaller actions
continued for a month. Some 4,500 Algerians were arrested; 99 people were
sentenced to death, and another 64 given life imprisonment. Casualty figures
remain in dispute. At least 100 Europeans died. The official French figure of
Muslim dead was 1,165, but this is certainly too low, and figures as high as
10,000 have been cited.

In March 1946 the French government announced a general
amnesty and released many of the Sétif detainees, including moderate Algerian
nationalist leader Ferhat Abbas, although his Friends of the Manifesto and
Liberty political party, formed in 1938, was dissolved. The fierce nature of
the French repression of the uprising was based on a perception that any
leniency would be interpreted as weakness and would only encourage further

The Sétif Uprising, which was not followed by any meaningful
French reform, drove a wedge between the two communities in Algeria. Europeans
now distrusted Muslims, and the Muslims never forgave the violence of the
repression. French authorities did not understand the implications of this. A
number of returning Muslim veterans of the war, including Ahmed Ben Bella, now
joined the more militant MTLD. Ben Bella went on to form the Organization
Speciale and soon departed for Egypt to enlist the support of its leaders.

Genuine political reform proved impossible, as granting full
representation to Algeria would have entailed giving it a quarter of the seats
in the National Assembly. The result was the compromise Algerian Statute,
approved by the French National Assembly in September 1947. For the first time,
Algeria was recognized as having administrative autonomy. The heart of the
statute, however, was the creation of an Algerian Assembly consisting of two
coequal 60-member assemblies. Although all Algerians were classified as French
citizens, the first college included all non-Muslim French citizens and those
Muslims French citizens who had been so defined by virtue of military service
or education. The second college provided for all other Muslims. A total of
469,023 Europeans and 63,194 Muslims were eligible to vote in the first
college, and 1,301,072 Muslims were eligible to vote in the second college.
Thus, for all practical purposes, the first college represented the 1.5 million
Euro-peans, and the second represented the 9.5 million Muslims.

The deputies, while elected separately, voted together. To
prevent the Muslims from having a majority by securing only one vote in the
first college, a two-thirds vote could be demanded by the governor-general or
30 members of the Assembly. Designed to give the Muslims some voice in their
governance while ensuring European control, the Algerian Statute proved to be a
poor compromise. Still, it might have worked were it not for the fact that the
mandatory elections, commencing in April 1948, were rigged. As a result, the
period from 1948 to the start of the rebellion in 1954 was marked by increasing
bitterness and conflict between the two Algerian communities.

Proindependence Algerian Muslims were emboldened by the May
1954 Viet Minh victory over French forces at Dien Bien Phu during the Indochina
War (1946–1954), and when Algerian Muslim nationalist leaders met Democratic
Republic of Vietnam president Ho Chi Minh at the Bandung Conference in April
1955, he assured them that the French could be defeated. Ben Bella and his
compatriots, having established the FLN on October 10, 1954, began the Algerian
War on the night of October 31–November 1.


Early on November 1, 1954, armed members of the FLN carried
out a number of small attacks across Algeria. The French government, which was
then dealing with independence movements in neighboring Tunisia and Morocco,
had not anticipated a similar development in Algeria. After all, Algeria had
been French territory since 1830 (Tunisia had been acquired only in 1881 and
Morocco in the period 1904–1911). Unlike Morocco and Tunisia, which were
classed as protectorates, Algeria was held to be an integral part of France.
Indeed, for some months the French people and press failed to recognize the
significance of what was happening and chose to characterize the rebels as
fellagha (outlaws).

There were valid reasons for the French to fight in order to
retain Algeria. Unlike Indochina, it was in close proximity to France, just
across the Mediterranean. The French had largely created modern Algeria, as the
deys had only controlled a narrow coastal strip around Algiers itself. There
were more than 1 million Europeans living there, and they would be unwilling to
concede place to Arab nationalism. Finally, there was the French Army. Its
professional soldiers had almost immediately been transferred from Indochina to
Algeria. Believing strongly that they had been denied the resources necessary
to win the Indochina War (1946–1954) and in the end had been sold out by their
government, they were determined that this would not be the case in Algeria.

Ultimately France committed a force of 450,000 men to the
war, and upwards of 1 million Frenchmen would serve there. Unlike the Indochina
War, this included draftees. As the conflict intensified, French officials
sought support from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), arguing that
keeping Algeria French would ensure that NATO’s southern flank would be safe
from communism. As a part of France, Algeria was included in the original NATO
Charter, but the French government position did not receive a sympathetic
response in Washington or in other NATO capitals. Only too late did a
succession of French governments attempt to carry out reform.

The FLN goal was to end French control of Algeria and drive
out or eliminate the colon population. The FLN was organized in six military
districts, or wilayas, along rigidly hierarchical lines. Wilaya 4, located near
Algiers, was especially important, and the FLN was particularly active in
Kabylia and the Aurés Mountains. The party tolerated no dissent. In form and
style, it resembled Soviet bloc communist parties, although it claimed to offer
a noncommunist and non-Western alternative ideology, articulated by Frantz
Fanon. The FLN military arm was the Armée de Libération Nationale (Army of
National Liberation, ALN).

Any hope of reconciliation between the two sides was
destroyed by a major FLN military operation on August 20, 1954. On that date,
its personnel, having infiltrated the port city of Philippeville, killed 71
colons and 52 pro-French Muslims (mostly local politicians), while the French
police and military killed 134 ALN troops. On the same day, the ALN attacked
and slaughtered European women and children living in the countryside
surrounding Constantine while the men were at work. At El-Halia, a
sulfur-mining community with some 120 Europeans living peacefully among 2,000
Algerian Muslims, 37 Europeans, including 10 children, were tortured and
killed. Another 13 were badly wounded. Several hours later French paratroopers
arrived, supported by military aircraft. The next morning they gathered about
150 Muslims together and executed them.

The French administration now allowed the settlers to arm
themselves and form self-defense units, measures that the reformist
governor-general Jacques Soustelle had earlier vetoed. European vigilante
groups are reported to have subsequently carried out summary killings of
Muslims. Soustelle reported a total of 1,273 Muslims killed in what he
characterized as “severe” reprisals.

The Arab League strongly supported the FLN, while Egypt
under President Gamal Abdel Nasser was a source of weapons and other
assistance. The French government’s grant of independence to both Tunisia and Morocco
in March 1956 further bolstered Algerian nationalism. When Israeli, British,
and French forces invaded Egypt in the Suez Crisis of 1956, the United States
condemned the move and forced their withdrawal. The Algerian insurgents were
emboldened by the French defeat. The French now also found themselves
contending with FLN supply bases in Tunisia that they could neither attack nor
eliminate. Also in 1956, the government of socialist premier Guy Mollet
transferred the bulk of the French Army to Algeria.

The major engagement of the war was the battle for control
of the Casbah district of Algiers, a district of some 100,000 people in the
Algerian capital city. With the guillotining in Algiers in June 1956 of several
FLN members who had killed Europeans, FLN commander of the Algiers Autonomous
Zone Saadi Yacef received instructions to kill any European between the ages of
18 and 54 but no women, children, or old people. During a three-day span in
June, Yacef’s roaming squads shot down 49 Europeans. It was the first time in
the war that such random acts of terrorism had occurred in Algiers and began a
spiral of violence there.

Hard-line European supporters of Algérie Française (French
Algeria) then decided to take matters into their own hands, and on the night of
August 10, André Achiary, a former member of the French government’s
counterintelligence service, planted a bomb in a building in the Casbah that
had supposedly housed the FLN, but the ensuing blast destroyed much of the
neighborhood and claimed 79 lives. No one was arrested for the blast, and the
FLN was determined to avenge the deaths.

Yacef, who had created a carefully organized network of some
1,400 operatives as well as bomb factories and hiding places, received orders
to undertake random bombings against Europeans, a first for the capital. On
September 30, 1956, three female FLN members planted bombs in the Milk-Bar, a
cafeteria, and a travel agency. The later bomb failed to go off owing to a
faulty timer, but the other two blasts killed three people and wounded more
than 50, including a number of children. This event is generally regarded as
the beginning of the Battle of Algiers (September 30, 1956–September 24, 1957).

Violence now took hold in Algiers. Both Muslim and European
populations in the city were in a state of terror. Schools closed in October,
and on December 28 Mayor Amédée Froger was assassinated.

On January 7, 1957, French governor-general Robert Lacoste
called in General Raoul Salan, new French commander in Algeria, and Brigadier
General Jacques Massu, commander of the elite 4,600-man 10th Colonial Parachute
Division, recently arrived from Suez. Lacoste ordered them to restore order in
the capital city, no matter the method.

In addition to his own men, Massu could call on other French
military units, totaling perhaps 8,000 men. He also had the city’s 1,500-man
police force. Massu divided the city into four grids, with one of his regiments
assigned to each. Lieutenant Colonel Marcel Bigeard’s 3rd Colonial Parachute
Regiment had responsibility for the Casbah itself.

The French set up a series of checkpoints. They also made
use of identity cards and instituted aggressive patrolling and house-to-house
searches. Massu was ably assisted by his chief of staff, Colonel Yves Godard,
who soon made himself the expert on the Casbah. Lieutenant Colonel Roger
Trinquier organized an intelligence-collection system that included paid Muslim
informants and employed young French paratroopers disguised as workers to
operate in the Casbah and identify FLN members. Trinquier organized a database
on the Muslim civilian population. The French also employed harsh interrogation
techniques of suspects, including the use of torture that included electric

The army broke a called Muslim general strike at the end of
January in only a few days. Yacef was able to carry out more bombings, but the
French Army ultimately won the battle and took the FLN leadership prisoner,
although Yacef was not captured until September 1957. Some 3,000 of 24,000
Muslims arrested during the Battle of Algiers were never seen again. The French
side lost an estimated 300 dead and 900 wounded.

The Battle of Algiers had widespread negative impact for the
French military effort in Algeria, however. Although the army embarked on an
elaborate cover-up, its use of torture soon became public knowledge and created
a firestorm that greatly increased opposition in metropolitan France to the
war. It should be noted, however, that the French employed torture to force FLN
operatives to talk, and some were murdered in the process. The FLN, on the
other hand, routinely murdered captured French soldiers and civilian Europeans.

In an effort to cut off the FLN from outside support, the
French also erected the Morice Line. Named for French minister of defense André
Morice, it ran for some 200 miles from the Mediterranean Sea in the north into
the Sahara in the south. The line was centered on an 8-foot tall, 5,000-volt
electric fence that ran its entire length. Supporting this was a 50-yard-wide
“killing zone” on each side of the fence rigged with antipersonnel mines. The
line was also covered by previously ranged 105mm howitzers. A patrolled track
paralleled the fence on its Algerian side. The Morice Line was bolstered by
electronic sensors that provided warning of any attempt to pierce the barrier.
Searchlights operated at night.

Although manning the line required a large number of French
soldiers, it did significantly reduce infiltration by the FLN from Tunisia. By
April 1958, the French estimated that they had defeated 80 percent of FLN
infiltration attempts. This contributed greatly to the isolation of those FLN
units within Algeria reliant on support from Tunisia. The French subsequently
constructed a less extensive barrier, known as the Pedron Line, along the
Algerian border with Morocco.

Despite victory in Algiers, French forces were not able to
end the Algerian rebellion or gain the confidence of the colons. Some colons
grew fearful that the French government was about to negotiate with the FLN,
and in the spring of 1958 there were a number of plots to change the colonial
government. Colon and army veteran Pierre Lagaillarde organized hundreds of
commandos and began a revolt on May 13, 1958. A number of senior army officers,
determined that the French government not repeat what had happened in
Indochina, lent support. Massu quickly formed the Committee of Public Safety,
and Salan assumed its leadership.

The plotters would have preferred someone more frankly
authoritarian, but Salan called for the return to power of General Charles de
Gaulle. Although de Gaulle had been out of power for more than a decade, on May
19 he announced his willingness to assume authority.

Massu was prepared to bring back de Gaulle by force if
necessary and plans were developed to dispatch paratroopers to metropolitan
France from Algeria, but this option was not needed. On June 1, 1958, the
French National Assembly invested de Gaulle with the premiership; technically
he was the last premier of the Fourth Republic. De Gaulle ultimately
established a new French political framework, the Fifth Republic, with greatly
enhanced presidential powers.

De Gaulle visited Algeria five times between June and
December 1958. At Oran on June 4, he said about France in Algeria that “she is
here forever.” A month later, he proposed 15 billion francs for Algerian
housing, education, and public works, and that October he suggested an even
more sweeping proposal, known as the Constantine Plan. The funding for the
massive projects, however, was never forthcoming. True reform was never
realized and in any case was probably too late to impact the Muslim community.

Algeria’s new military commander, General Maurice Challe,
arrived in Algeria on December 12, 1958, and launched a series of attacks on
FLN positions in rural Kabylia in early 1959. The Harkis, Muslim troops loyal
to France, guided special mobile French troops called Commandos de Chasse. An
aggressive set of sorties deep in Kabylia made considerable headway, and Challe
calculated that by the end of October his men had killed half of the FLN
operatives there. A second phase of the offensive was to occur in 1960, but by
then de Gaulle, who had gradually eliminated options, had decided that Algerian
independence was inevitable.

In late August 1959, de Gaulle braced his generals for the
decision and then addressed the nation on September 19, 1959, declaring his
support for Algerian self-determination. Fearing for their future, some die-hard
colons created the Front Nationale Français and fomented another revolt on
January 24, 1960, in the so-called Barricades Week. Mayhem ensued when
policemen tried to restore order, and a number of people were killed or
wounded. General Challe and the colony’s governor, Paul Delouvrier, fled
Algiers on January 28, but the next day de Gaulle, wearing his old army
uniform, turned the tide via a televised address to the nation. On February 1
army units swore loyalty to the government, and the revolt quickly collapsed.

Early in 1961, increasingly desperate Ultras formed a
terrorist group called the Secret Army Organization (OAS). It targeted colons
whom they regarded as traitors and also carried out bombings in France and
attempted to assassinate de Gaulle himself.

The Generals’ Putsch of April 20–26, 1961, was a serious
threat to de Gaulle’s regime. General Challe wanted a revolt limited to
Algeria, but Salan and his colleagues (Ground Forces chief of staff General
André Zeller and recently retired inspector general of the air force Edmond
Jouhaud) had prepared for a revolt in France as well. The generals had the
support of many frontline officers in addition to almost two divisions of
troops. The Foreign Legion arrested commander of French forces in Algeria
General Fernand Gambiez, and paratroopers near Rambouillet prepared to march on
Paris after obtaining armored support. The coup collapsed, however, as police
units managed to convince the paratroopers to depart, and army units again
swore loyalty to de Gaulle.

On June 10, 1961, de Gaulle held secret meetings with FLN
representatives in Paris, and then on June 14 he made a televised appeal for
the FLN’s so-called provisional government to negotiate an end to the war.
Peace talks during June 25–29 failed to lead to resolution, but de Gaulle was
set in his course. During his visit to Algeria in December, he was greeted by
large pro-FLN Muslim rallies and anticolon riots. The United Nations recognized
Algeria’s independence on December 20, and in a national referendum on January
8, 1962, the French public voted in favor of Algerian independence.

A massive exodus of colons was already under way. Nearly 1
million returned to their ancestral homelands (half of them went to France,
while most of the rest went to Spain and Italy). Peace talks resumed in March
at Évian, and both sides reached a settlement on May 18, 1962.


The formal handover of power occurred on July 4, 1962, when
the FLN’s Provisional Committee took control of Algeria, and in September Ben
Bella was elected Algeria’s first president. The Algerian War claimed some
18,000 French military deaths, 3,000 colon deaths, and about 300,000 Muslim

The Europeans were encouraged to leave (la valise ou le
cercueil, meaning “the suitcase or the coffin”), and some 1.5 million did so.
Perhaps half relocated in Metropolitan France, and most of the remainder went
to Spain or Italy. Some 30,000 Europeans remained in Algeria. Ostensibly
granted equal rights in the peace treaty, they instead faced official
discrimination by the FLN government and the loss of much of their property.
The FLN-led Algerian government, headed by Prime Minister Mohammed Ben Bella,
promptly confiscated the colons’ abandoned property and established a
decentralized socialist economy and a one-party state.

The Harkis, those Algerian Muslims who fought on the French
side in the war, suffered terribly. Some 91,000 and their family members
settled in France. At least 30,000 and perhaps as many as 150,000 Harkis and
their family members, including young children, who remained in Algeria were
subsequently butchered by either the FLN or lynch mobs.

Ben Bella’s attempt to consolidate his power, combined with
popular discontent with the economy’s inefficiency, sparked a bloodless
military coup by Defense Minister Houari Boumédienne in June 1965. In 1971, the
government endeavored to stimulate economic growth by nationalizing the oil
industry and investing the revenues in centrally orchestrated industrial
development. Boumédienne’s military-dominated government took on an
increasingly authoritarian cast over the years.

Algeria’s leaders sought to retain their autonomy, joining
their country to the Non-Aligned Movement, and Boumédienne phased out French military
bases. Although Algeria denounced perceived American imperialism and supported
Cuba, the Viet Cong in South Vietnam, Palestinian nationalists, and African
anticolonial fighters, it maintained a strong trading relationship with the
United States. At the same time, Algeria cultivated economic ties with the
Soviet Union, which provided the nation with military equipment and training.
When the Spanish relinquished control of Western Sahara in 1976, Morocco
attempted to annex the region, leading to a 12-year low-level war with Algeria,
which supported the guerrilla movement fighting for the region’s independence.

Diplomatic relations with the United States warmed after
Algeria negotiated the release of American hostages in Iran in 1980 and Morocco
fell out of U.S. favor by allying with Libya in 1984.

In 1976, a long-promised constitution that provided for
elections was enacted, although Algeria remained a one-party state. When
Boumédienne died in December 1978, power passed to Chadli Bendjedid, the army-backed
candidate. Bendjedid retreated from Boumédienne’s increasingly ineffective
economic policies, privatizing much of the economy and encouraging
entrepreneurship. However, accumulated debt continued to retard economic
expansion. Growing public protests from labor unions, students, and Islamic
fundamentalists forced the government to end restrictions on political
expression in 1988.

The Islamic Salvation Front (Front Islamique du Salut, FIS)
proved to be the most successful of the new political parties. After victories
by the FIS in local elections in June 1990 and national elections in December
1991, Bendjedid resigned, and a new regime under Mohamed Boudiaf imposed
martial law, banning the FIS in March 1992. In response, Islamist radicals
began a guerrilla war that has persisted to the present, taking a toll of
150,000 or more lives. Although Algeria’s military government managed to gain
the upper hand in the struggle after 1998, Islamic groups continue to wage war
on the state, which maintains control through brutal repression and tainted

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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