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
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
government, which meant being under the sharp watch of the German Armistice
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,
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 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
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
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
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
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.