A Tale Of Two Legions – Sidebar: September ’97 World War II Feature

The 13th Demi-Brigade continued the Foreign Legion’s tradition of valor.

By Edward L. Bimberg

It has been said that the French Foreign Legion is a mysterious world no outsider can penetrate unless he joins its ranks. It is a world of the strictest discipline, the greatest pride and some of the strangest traditions in military annals. It has also been the home of many military oddballs, from lowly privates to high-ranking generals, and its ranks have included many famous names–royalty, writers, artists, composers, poets and even a couple of future prime ministers of France.

In World War II the 13th Demi-Brigade of the Foreign Legion exemplified this world and its traditions. After its successful battles in the early part of the war in Norway, Eritrea and Syria, it went on to even greater glory with the British Eighth Army in the Western Desert of North Africa. Its incredible stand, along with colonial and marine units, at Bîr Hacheim is the stuff of legends. There, surrounded in the most remote part of the Libyan desert, outnumbered and outgunned, the Free French held off everything Rommel could throw against them. That 14-week epic stalled a successful German drive and played a major role in saving Egypt.

The Legion has a reputation for unusual, eccentric commanders, and the 13th Demi-Brigade was no exception. Its first colonel was something of a mystery man. Lieutenant Colonel Magrin-Verneret gave himself the sobriquet “Colonel Monclar” to protect his family in France, and he was known by that name during the war and after. Wounded 17 times in World War I, he was not really physically fit to command. But command he did in Norway and Eritrea–until Syria, when he refused to fight other Frenchmen and was relieved. After the war he rejoined the Legion, this time as General Monclar, the inspector general of the corps. In the early 1950s, still the fighter and irascible as ever, he voluntarily took a reduction in rank to fight in Korea. As Colonel Monclar once again, he commanded the Foreign Legion complement that fought with the United Nations forces in Korea, a legionnaire to the end.

The Legion has had such royalty in its ranks as King Peter I of Serbia, Prince Louis II of Monaco and Prince Aage of Denmark, among others. Dmitri Amilakvari, a Georgian prince and refugee from Soviet Russia, was the Legion’s principal royalty during World War II. The Legion was Amilakvari’s life, and he served for 16 years before World War II. He joined the 13th Demi-Brigade as a captain, and he commanded it at Bîr Hacheim as its colonel. His strong personality held the unit together through its most trying times. His coolness under fire was legendary.

Although Dmitri Amilakvari’s roots were in the faraway Caucasus, he was, like so many Foreign Legionnaires, more French than the French. He once remarked, “The only way for us foreigners to pay our debt to France is to die for her.” And he did. He was killed fighting for the 13th Demi-Brigade at Himeimat Ridge in the Battle of El Alamein.

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