The Tale of Two Legions in World War II


by Edward L. Bimberg

Originally published in the September '97 issue of World War II magazine





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 French­, German and ­Italian 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 bare 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 Cossack like 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 Legionlike 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 more heavy 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.