The Battle on the Frontiers
French decrees issued in the spring of 1956 divided Algeria into three zones: a zone of operation, a pacification zone, and a forbidden zone. The allocation of counterinsurgency forces logically followed this division. The zone of operations was the killing ground where elite mobile French forces relentlessly pursued guerrilla bands with the objective of eliminating them. In the pacification zones, which embraced the most populous and fertile areas, French conscript and reserve formations tried to protect the civilian population, European and Muslim alike, from terrorist attacks. Here security was accompanied by major economic reforms, education, and propaganda indoctrination. French strategists designated sparsely populated areas that were adjacent to the pacification zones as forbidden zones (zones interdites). The strategic intent was to separate the rebels from their sources of supplies and recruits while providing security for the pacification zones. They were beyond the pale, a region from where the population was evacuated and relocated in settlement camps controlled by the army. Thereafter, the army was permitted to fire on anyone seen moving in the forbidden zones.
Having established the parameters by which it would operate, the French military went to work. It employed overwhelming force to drive the FLN’s military organization, the Armée de Libération Nationale (ALN), out of Algeria. Most ALN fighters took refuge in the neighboring countries of Morocco and Tunisia. Those who continued the fight inside Algeria became dependent on external supply sources. The French recognized this vulnerability and concentrated on isolating Algeria. Nourished by good intelligence, the French navy intercepted ships carrying arms to Algeria. They also blocked aerial resupply of the guerrillas. Outside of Algeria, French secret agents waged a successful intimidation campaign, including targeted assassinations, against international arms dealers. Because of these measures, the insurgents remained starved for effective firearms and munitions.
Inside Algeria, the French organized harki units of “loyal” Algerians. A farsighted settler, Jean Servier, had overcome official resistance to organize light companies from FLN defectors. Servier insisted that these harki units serve near their homes so they could protect their own families from FLN retaliation. Armed with shotguns, intimately familiar with the local environment, Servier’s harkis soon demonstrated their worth by eliminating local insurgents. News about the opportunity for regular employment spread rapidly and French-loyal village elders began organizing their own harki units. They were essentially miniature tribal armies. Over a two-year period beginning in 1957, the number of these lightly armed native forces serving as village militia rose to involve some 60,000 Algerians. When associated with skilled French SAS [civil affairs officers called Specialized Administrative Sections] leaders the harkis proved to be very effective in denying the insurgents access to rural people.
However, the Algerian borders were open to infiltration from guerrilla sanctuaries in Morocco and Tunisia. The recent memory of Indochina, where Communist guerrillas enjoyed free passage across international borders, persuaded the French to tackle this challenge decisively. The French utilized a classic counterinsurgency approach that the Romans who constructed Hadrian’s Wall would have admired. The French built extensive fortified barriers along 500 miles of the Moroccan border in the west. But it was in the east along the Tunisian border where they erected a state-of-the-art defensive barrier. This was the famous Morice Line, named after the French defense minister, a 200-mile-long line extending from the sea to the Sahara desert. An eight-foot-high electrified wire barrier carrying 5,000 volts ran through the middle of a wide minefield overlooked by regularly spaced watchtowers. When the guerrillas tried to break through the fence, detection devices triggered an alarm system. Of critical importance, the Morice Line, like Hadrian’s Wall, was not simply a passive defense system. Rather, both worked in association with mobile combat formations who met insurgent breakthroughs wherever they occurred. Precalibrated artillery fire rained down wherever automatic devices detected a breach, while mobile combat patrols rushed along a purpose built highway that ran along most of the Algerian side of the barrier to deal with the penetration. If a breach occurred in the roadless, remote southern sector, helicopters flew the reaction force to the scene of the incident. The entire system involved 80,000 soldiers, watching and waiting for any FLN attempt to reinforce their beleaguered fighters in Algeria.
The challenge came soon. Raiders probed the Morice Line looking for weaknesses. They employed high-tension wire cutters purchased in Germany, insulated ramps, tunnels, and blasting charges. After opening a breach the raiders tried to hold the nearby terrain to permit the passage of reinforcements and supplies before the French resealed the border. Nothing worked. Infiltration parties attempting to outflank the line at its southern end found themselves exposed to French air power in the open Sahara and were slaughtered. So the armed wing of the FLN, the ALN regulars, tried a series of escalating conventional attacks against the Morice Line.
A large ALN force fought through the Morice Line in May 1958 only to encounter the reconnaissance group of the First Foreign Legion Parachute Regiment. Colonel Pierre Jeanpierre, one of Massu’s paratroop leaders during the Battle of Algiers, died while leading his Legionnaires in a decisive counterattack that resealed the line. In another climactic action, waves of ALN fighters managed to breach the Morice Line only to be pinned down by the French mechanized and helicopter-delivered reaction forces. A total of 620 of the 820 men who penetrated the line were killed or captured. The series of efforts to breach the French fortified barriers cost the ALN upward of 6,000 men, a devastating setback that compelled the FLN to cease trying to breach the French fortifications.
While the French navy prevented the guerrillas from smuggling arms and men into Algeria, the Morice Line and the Moroccan barrier effectively blocked infiltration by land and thereby “established a kind of closed hunting preserve” where the French security forces could relentlessly conduct a battle of attrition. Only some 8,000 ALN fighters remained inside Algeria. With the veterans gone, most of the remnants were young, inexperienced recruits who predictably suffered heavily whenever drawn into combat with the French.
Because the ALN dispersed and went into hiding, increasing numbers of Algerian civilians withdrew support for the rebels. In June 1960 an FLN political leader reported to his government in exile, “It becomes increasingly impossible to penetrate the barriers in order to nurture the revolution in the interior . . . unless directed, supplied with fresh troops, effective weaponry, and money in great amounts, the underground forces will not be able to live for a long time let alone achieve victory . . . The organic infrastructure has been dismantled in the urban centers, and it is increasingly nonexistent in the countryside.”
The Return of Charles de Gaulle
Just when it appeared that the FLN was on the verge of defeat the entire political climate in France changed. In Algeria, the pieds-noirs had greeted various proposals for reform as betrayal. On April 26, 1958, some 8,000 Europeans marched through Algiers and made a public oath: “Against whatever odds, on our tombs and on our cradles, taking our dead on the field of honor as our witnesses, we swear to live and die as Frenchmen in the land of Algiers, forever French.” In France, press investigations of abuses in the resettlement program and new revelations about the practice of torture demoralized the public. The war’s unpopularity combined with numerous economic and social gripes to reduce domestic support for the French government. A cabinet crisis fractured the weakened government and presented an opportunity for right-wing activists to strike.
On the day a new cabinet was scheduled to present its program to the National Assembly, pied-noir activist groups in Algiers began widespread demonstrations in an effort to influence the vote. They feared that the new French government would abandon them and denounced the government for plotting “a diplomatic Dien Bien Phu.” By the evening of May 13, 1958, they controlled Algiers and had established an emergency government. The French army in Algeria realized that it held enormous political clout and supported this new government. France teetered on the edge of revolution.
Into the ensuing leadership void stepped Charles de Gaulle. The settlers’ revolt found the sixty-seven-year-old war hero in rural retirement working on his war memoirs. But he had been closely following political developments and was far from displeased when a new opportunity presented itself. In a memorable speech on May 19, 1958, de Gaulle deployed his brilliant rhetoric to reassure the nation. Alluding to events in Algeria, de Gaulle said that France confronted “an extremely grave national crisis.” But he also told the nation that it could “prove to be the beginning of a kind of resurrection.” The National Assembly voted de Gaulle full powers for six months, thereby ending the Fourth Republic. De Gaulle, in turn, judged Algeria a “millstone round France’s neck.” In his view the era of European colonialism was coming to an end and there was no longer any alternative for Algeria except self-determination. But it was of crucial importance that France grant Algeria this right. It could not be forced upon any self-respecting French government at the point of a gun or the detonation a terrorist bomb. As the new leader phrased it, prior to negotiations the insurgents had to check “the knives in the cloakroom.”
De Gaulle knew that to arrive at an acceptable solution he had to appeal to diverse political constituents and consequently had to handle the situation with extreme circumspection. Thus, he moved slowly and cautiously, and with calculated vagueness. By so doing he failed to capitalize on the opportunity created by military success in Algeria.
FLN leaders would later say that the weeks following de Gaulle’s rise to power marked a low ebb for their cause. Their military forces had hurled themselves against the Morice Line and been badly defeated. Their troops were demoralized and when de Gaulle spoke about true equality for all Algerians within the French republic the great mass of Algerians appeared receptive to compromise. FLN leaders knew that they had to do something before de Gaulle’s government could consolidate power. They responded brilliantly with a diplomatic offensive designed to take advantage of Cold War rivalry between the East and West by proclaiming a revolutionary Provisional Government of the Republic of Algeria. Arab nations hastened to recognize the new government. The Communist bloc, except for the USSR, followed. FLN spokesmen hinted at a new flexibility regarding a negotiated settlement and the international press enthusiastically endorsed this notion. Yet even as they won an important victory on the international front, military events in Algeria again threatened to defeat the FLN.
The Challe Plan
When de Gaulle assumed power he began to replace the command team in Algeria with his own loyalists. He chose General Maurice Challe to command the military. It proved an inspired choice. Still vigorous at age fifty-three, Challe had served with distinction in the Resistance during World War II. He had provided the British with valuable intelligence on the eve of the Normandy Invasion and earned both a British medal and a personal citation from Winston Churchill. Although trained as an airman, Challe possessed a keen appreciation for land tactics. Unlike his predecessor, he did not dabble in politics but rather was an open and honest leader with a surpassing ability to forge an interservice, team approach to problem solving. De Gaulle ordered Challe to deliver a crushing blow to the already reeling insurgent cause by a series of offensives designed to reduce the rebel pockets one after another. In de Gaulle’s mind this offensive was like a pre-assault strategic bombardment designed to create a receptive environment for what ever he decided to do next.
Challe, in turn, believed that too many French soldiers, about 380,000 by his count, had been assigned passive roles guarding the Morice Line, securing the country’s infrastructure, and protecting its villages. Only 15,000 remained in the General Reserve to conduct active operations. The result was that the French military had designated vast swaths of Algeria as “no-go zones,” which effectively ceded these areas to the FLN. Indeed, the French had ruefully labeled one such zone the “FLN republic.” Unwilling to remain passive and reactive, Challe planned to concentrate overwhelming force against each traditional insurgent stronghold. After eliminating the rebels and inserting pacification teams to take control of the population and prevent the insurgents from re-forming, Challe intended to move against another stronghold. He introduced his strategy to the army in Algeria with a simple catch phrase that everyone could understand: “Neither the djebel [hill] nor the night must be left to the FLN.” He made sure that he had the right sort of tactical commanders to realize his vision by sacking nearly half the sector commanders and replacing them with more aggressive colonels.
The first offensive took place in the rolling country southeast of Oran. Although this area had long been controlled by the FLN, it presented less daunting terrain than the traditional insurgent strongholds in the Aurès mountains and the Kabylie. The elite paratroopers spearheaded the ensuing Operation Oranie, followed by mechanized columns issuing out of Oran to flood the countryside. It was essentially a giant search-and-destroy operation conducted with more technical sophistication than ever before. Using an integrated communications net that permitted command coordination between ground and air units, officers in airborne command posts managed a fast-paced series of moves for which the insurgent foot soldiers had no answer. American-supplied giant helicopters, the famous Piasecki H-21 “flying bananas,” provided the capacity to land two entire battalions in five minutes. Three hundred slow, propeller-driven training aircraft were converted to ground attack roles. At first, pilots who had trained to fly modern supersonic jets complained bitterly. The former airman Challe ignored them and the complaints ceased when the pilots discovered, as would a future general of American airmen flying A-10s in Iraq, that slow was good for ground support missions. French mechanized columns cornered the guerrillas and the converted trainers allowed pilots to deliver bombs and rockets with pinpoint lethality.
During Operation Oranie, Challe also inserted into action numerous newly recruited harki units. The expansion had required de Gaulle’s authorization. During a face-to-face encounter, Challe had insisted and de Gaulle had replied with characteristic haughtiness, “One does not impose conditions on de Gaulle!” Challe refused to be overmastered and told de Gaulle to either give him the men or he would resign. Thereafter Challe had select harki [village militia] units form specially trained “hunter-killer” teams complete with experienced trackers to search the interior for enemy presence. They marched light, living off the land, and tracked small guerrilla bands through remote regions that heretofore had been inaccessible to the French. They carried radios, so if they contacted a large insurgent band they could summon reinforcements. Helicopters rapidly delivered elite fighters from Challe’s General Reserve to surround and trap the enemy. Moreover, the French benefited from accurate intelligence, much of it extracted by torture, but also numerous useful windfalls obtained from a very successful radio-interception service.
The two-month-long Operation Oranie proved an outstanding success. The French claimed to have killed more than 1,600 guerrillas while capturing another 460 along with large quantities of weapons and ammunition. Challe estimated that the campaign had eliminated fully half the ALN manpower in the area. While the casualty claims may have been inflated, there was no doubt that the French had delivered a staggering blow.
Proof of success came when pacification teams, left behind after the mobile forces departed, were able to work without significant interference from the insurgents. Army engineers built roads to link formerly isolated villages with the outside economy and the insurgents seldom were able to thwart them by laying mines or blowing up culverts and bridges. SAS teams moved into villages, raised self-defense forces, built more schools and clinics than at any time since 1954, and worked hard to show the people the benefits of remaining French.
Encouraged by these results, and having built up his mobile reserve to 35,000 crack troops, in mid-April Challe shifted his forces east to the mountains behind Algiers to begin a new offensive. Here the terrain was more rugged and results less outstanding. The ALN fighters dispersed quickly when the French appeared and thereafter successfully evaded contact. Challe tinkered with his tactics and pressed on through November 1959. The climactic offensive of the so-called Challe Plan was Operation Jumelles, directed against the Kabylie, where the FLN had first raised the banner of rebellion. From his command helicopter, Challe personally directed 25,000 men in a multiprong assault against the guerrilla stronghold. Marines conducted amphibious attacks along the coast, mechanized columns penetrated remote valleys, harki hunter-killer teams searched the forests while the paratrooper reaction forces waited on the airfields to board their helicopters when called. Overhead, the ground attack aircraft loitered, waiting to swoop down against any target.
Even in Challe’s opinion the results were disappointing. The ALN had learned from Challe’s first campaign and again dispersed rapidly and gone to ground. Although the French claimed to have killed, wounded, or captured 3,746 Kabyle insurgents, how many of these people were merely civilians caught in the war’s crossfire is unknowable. On the positive side of the ledger, the FLN acknowledged heavy losses. The French had lost several hundred killed, but compared to the insurgents the ratio was a very impressive one to ten. Particularly encouraging from a French standpoint was the fact that more insurgents surrendered than ever before and many of them volunteered to serve in harki units. To the French soldiers on the ground it appeared that the insurgency was in its death throes.
An experienced war correspondent toured Algeria and wrote, “From a purely military point of view, it could be said that the FLN has been beaten. Its last hundred-man katybas [organized combat companies] have taken refuge in the impregnable rocky highlands where they are contained. In other places . . . local fellagha [guerrillas] stay in the brush and the katybas, broken up into little groups of a dozen fighters each . . . change their hideouts every night. The only purpose of their operations is to maintain a feeling of insecurity.” Along the fortified frontier barriers, all the larger ALN units were reduced to harassing the barrier guards from their sanctuaries in Tunisia and Morocco. They could neither breach nor outflank the high-tension wires, barbed-wire entanglements, and floodlit minefields. Citing his campaign maxim to deny the guerrillas sanctuary in the hills, Challe proclaimed, “The rebel is no longer king of the djebel, he is trapped there . . . The military phase of the rebellion is terminated in the interior.”
How true was this assertion? If statistics cited by Challe were accurate, namely that half the FLN fighters in the operational areas had been eliminated, obviously the other half remained. If Challe’s claim that the insurgents’ logistical base had shrunk by 20 percent in the past year was correct, a substantial base was still present. Challe’s assessment also overlooked the fact that by this time a new ALN chief of staff, Houari Boumedienne, had made the decision to cease supporting the katybas inside Algeria and instead rest, refit, and recruit a powerful new force in Tunisia. There they would be in a position to return to Algeria when the time was favorable.
Moreover, Challe’s large-scale search and destroy operations did not occur in a political vacuum. The question remained: to what extent had these “victories” persuaded the Muslim population to support the French and turn against the insurgents?