It is doubtful that any other military unit had a more peripatetic journey through World War II than the 13th Demi-Brigade of the French Foreign Legion (13th DBLE). The Legionnaires fought from the frozen fjords of Norway, around Africa, in the searing deserts of the Middle East, in the mountains of Italy, in France and finally during the grim push into Germany. Along the way, they fought just about every kind of enemy thrown at them — and on a couple of occasions each other. Formed originally to fight the Russians, the unit included the only woman Legionnaire ever and was commanded by a czarist prince out of Beau Geste.
Although the Legion’s only winter experience in over 100 years was its brief participation in the 1918-19 intervention in Russia, the French government nevertheless decided to create a Legion formation to help Finland in its 1939-40 Winter War with Russia. Formed on March 27, 1940, the brigade had an initial strength of 55 officers, 210 noncommissioned officers and 1,984 men — with Spanish Loyalists fleeing General Francisco Franco’s victorious Nationalists constituting the largest national bloc at around 25 percent — and was commanded by Colonel Raoul Magrin-Vernerey, who had been wounded 17 times in World War I and had served in the Legion since 1924.
Finland had by then capitulated, but in April France decided to send the DBLE as part of the Allied expeditionary force to oppose the German invasion of Norway. After cursory winter training at Larzac in south-central France, where a quarter of its personnel was peeled off to augment new units, the 13th DBLE was loaded aboard at Brest with the objective of seizing the far northern port of Narvik from the Germans’ grip.
The German commander at Narvik’s response was: “The Foreign Legion? Those international thugs. The British should be ashamed to use them against us.” As for single-minded Legionnaire commander Magrin-Vernerey, he did not give a damn what the Germans thought or even the reason he was being sent: “What is my aim? To take Narvik. For the Norwegians? The phosphates? The anchovies? I haven’t the slightest idea. But I shall take Narvik.”
The DBLE landed seven miles north of Narvik on May 6, to begin a slow, deadly drive on the town. Norway “was an eerie, silent war, where gunfire echoed with a hollow sound against the snow-capped mountains,” described Geoffrey Bocca in La Légion!: The French Foreign Legion and the Men Who Made It Glorious. Blizzards drove temperatures down to 60 degrees below zero. One Legionnaire shrugged it off with “snow is like sand, but cold.” French Corporal Charles Favrel had a rather different reaction when he found a Spaniard frozen to death, eyes open, still in his firing position. Favrel would soon have the even grimmer experience of leading to the firing squad and helping to execute for desertion two brothers from Luxembourg.
The demi-brigade made a second landing south of Narvik on May 28. For five hours the men were pinned down by artillery and machine gun fire until Magrin-Vernerey came ashore, grabbed a submachine gun and led the charge up the slopes. Outnumbered 3-to-1, the 1,500 Legionnaires drove the Germans out of Narvik.
This first Allied land victory of World War II proved to be worth absolutely nothing. Though the Legionnaires were driving the Germans 10 miles to the Swedish border, France was collapsing. The Allies were ordered out of Norway. The Legion evacuated June 7, having lost seven officers, five NCOs and 55 men. In an innovative touch, the rear guard left uniformed dummies in their positions to cover their pullout. By the time the 13th landed at Brest, France had surrendered. Some Legionnaires considered discontinuing the fighting until Magrin-Vernerey shot dead a regular lieutenant who asked him to stop fighting. The Legionnaires then took heed and boarded a channel ferry to England with their leader. Magrin-Vernerey knew how to make a point in as few words as possible.
There, the demi-brigade split: 31 officers and 636 men elected to return to North Africa, and Magrin-Vernerey, 28 officers and 900 men signed up with Charles de Gaulle’s Free French — for six months. “I knew I had enough in the paychest to keep the men going for six months,” explained Magrin-Vernerey, who thereafter fought under the nom de guerre of Monclar to protect his family in France.
Six months turned into five years. Sent to win French West Africa for de Gaulle, the 13th DBLE was prevented from landing at Dakar, Senegal, in September by fierce Vichy shelling of the invasion fleet. By December, however, the Legionnaires were marching unopposed into Gabon and the Cameroons. They were then sent around the Cape of Good Hope in early 1941, with the 13th assigned to help British forces conquer Benito Mussolini’s shabby empire in East Africa. After that, the sideshows were over. Their main show in the Middle East began.
The period between the fall of Syria in the summer of 1941 and the end of the North African campaign in May, 1943 might be considered the golden age of the 13th DBLE in World War II, according to historian Douglas Porch. It would be without Magrin-Vernerey/Monclar, however. He had opposed invading Vichy-held Syria due to the risk of fighting the Legion garrison there. Monclar was replaced by the Legion’s outstanding hero of WWII, Prince Dimitri Amilakvari of Georgia. He had fled the Russian Revolution at 11 and joined the Legion at 20. “Amilakvari is the Legion,” said Monclar. Disdaining to trade his kepi for a helmet, Amilakvari was always immaculately turned out. He believed that “when one risks appearing before God, one must be properly dressed.”
Although the 13th DBLE’s casualties in the brief (June 8-July 14, 1941) Syria campaign were slight — 21 killed, 47 wounded — Monclar’s fears were borne out as the Vichy Legion garrison fiercely resisted the DBLE and the British, losing 128 killed, 728 wounded. The bitter division of the French army in WWII between de Gaulle and Henri Pétain, particularly in the officer corps, had found its way into the Foreign Legion. Given the choice between repatriation or joining the demi-brigade, only 692 of Syria’s 3,000-man Vichy Legion garrison, and just two officers, signed up.
After the bitterness of Syria came the high point for the 13th DBLE and for the entire Legion during WWII: its crucial role in the defense of Bir Hacheim between May 27 and June 10, 1942. Anchoring the southern tip of the British Gazala line, Bir Hacheim was a nine-mile, six-sided box position on a vast plateau, hot as a skillet and blasted by wind and sand. Making up a third of the Free French garrison under the command of General Pierre Koenig were Amilakvari and 957 men of the 13th DBLE. Among them were German Jews and leftists fleeing Adolf Hitler, as well as a future premier of France, Pierre Messmer. Koenig’s British driver, Susan Travers, who was enlisted on the spot, would be the only woman ever to serve in the French Foreign Legion. Arriving at Bir Hacheim on February 14, 1942, the Legionnaires and other Free French spent three months digging 1,200 trenches, gun pits and command posts and laying minefields and then waited for the inevitable blow to fall.
The digging paid off; General Erwin Rommel first sent in Italian armor. In less than an hour, 33 tanks were blown up in the minefields, blasted almost point blank by Legion gunners (one of the German Legionnaires alone took out seven tanks) or put out of action by Legionnaires shoving grenades through their visors. The stunned Italian commander said after his capture, “We were told we could crush you in 15 minutes.” Rommel outnumbered the Free French by over 10-to-1, but it took him almost 15 days to occupy Bir Hacheim. Amilakvari was always in the thick of it with kepi and cape, as the fighting grew as fierce as the 120-degree heat.
Rommel threw in armor, infantry and combined assaults. The Legionnaires in return “opened fire again with undiminished violence,” Rommel wrote, then countercharged on foot and in open Bren gun carriers. Messmer destroyed 15 German tanks. Lieutenant Jean Deve, a World War I veteran and former railway man, threw himself at German armor to the very end. On the final day he was last seen with his nearly severed head dangling over the side of his carrier. One philosophic Legionnaire who had been his comrade at Narvik said, “We’re the men whose bootprints fill with shells.” German artillery kept on shelling Bir Hacheim. Dive bombers flew 1,400 sorties, unloading 1,500 tons of explosives. The defenses the Legionnaires had helped to build were good ones. Only 14 Legionnaires were killed and 17 wounded during the heavy siege. For the Legion, though, Bir Hacheim was a continuation of its private civil war. One of the Afrika Korps units most remorselessly assaulting Bir Hacheim was the 361st Infantry Regiment, composed of German ex-Legionnaires repatriated, many of them willingly, under the 1940 armistice that Adolf Hitler had forced on Pétain.
British command finally authorized a nighttime breakout. The Free French went out in vehicles and on foot. Susan Travers later recalled her adventures in driving Koenig and Amilakvari: “Shells were falling around us like rain and sudden, violent explosions tore the night, showering our car with burning metal….The wounded who could walk were ordered to get out and continue on foot to lessen the weight of the vehicles picking their way through the mines. From starting off as a reasonably well-planned evacuation it had become a shambolic flight.” Soon on their own, Koenig, Amilakvari and Travers came within yards of a German camp and shot off into the darkness, with German gunfire behind them.
The last stragglers out of Bir Hacheim reached British lines three days later. Covering the flanks of the pullout had proved more costly for the 13th DBLE than the siege: 11 killed, 32 wounded, 37 captured. One of the captured, a Sergeant Eckstein, had an arm amputated just hours before the breakout, but he refused to ride. Luckily, his German nationality went undetected, and he survived captivity.
If Bir Hacheim was the demi-brigade’s most heroic episode, its most tragic moment came perhaps five months later, on the opening night of the Battle of El Alamein. Ordered to take the 1,300-foot ridge of Oaret el Himeimat, Amilakvari had misgivings. He told the demi-brigade’s hospitalized Yugoslav chaplain: “I had a horrible dream. I was badly wounded and someone was giving me the last rites and it wasn’t you.” Their evening assault was pinned down by German machine gun fire, and they were counterattacked at dawn by armor and the Luftwaffe. While only 11 Legionnaires were killed and 60 wounded, one of the dead was Prince Dimitri Amilakvari. A shell fragment had pierced his cloth-and-leather kepi. He had once said, “With or without helmet, death knows when it is your turn.” A French chaplain administered the last rites, after which he was buried wrapped in his trademark cape.
Angry at the demi-brigade’s failure to seize the objective, British General Bernard Law Montgomery pulled it out of the battle and the campaign itself until its final weeks, in Tunisia. The 13th DBLE would not again see action until almost a year later, when it was sent to Italy. There it fought its own mini Monte Cassino against a Renaissance castle atop Monte Radicofani north of Rome. Six volunteers with rope and pitons finally climbed up from behind and surprised the Germans with a hail of grenades. Just two months’ service in Italy cost the demi-brigade 466 casualties, 25 percent of its strength.
On August 16, 1944, the 13th DBLE returned to France as part of the invasion of the south, helping to take Toulon and Lyons. The demi-brigade was by then so desperate for men that it took in as a unit 650 Ukrainian deserters from the Waffen SS without bothering to assimilate them.
The bitter winter fighting in Alsace around Strasbourg and Colmar cost the 13th DBLE over 40 percent losses, a total of 1,026 casualties. One surrounded company had a German Legionnaire ask a Wehrmacht sentry in the dark for directions and dispositions. He then knifed the sentry, and the unit fought its way out. By March 1945, the demi-brigade was down to 700 men when complaints by its members to Paris about tactics and shortages of equipment and recruits led to its being shoved to the military backwater of the Alps. Meanwhile, other Legion units that had not joined the fight until the Allied occupation of North Africa were allowed to drive on into Germany.
Although the 13th DBLE was the only unit in the French military to wear the Gaullist Cross of Lorraine on its shoulder patch, it got little recognition for its contributions despite the fact that Legionnaires, who come from around the globe, “become French by spilled blood,” as the well-known adage goes. Even Douglas Porch’s history of the Legion says the demi-brigade “finished an interesting but poor third” (as if the horrors of combat had Nielson ratings). Public recognition back in the French homeland went to the Resistance and the regular division led by the legendary Lt. Gen. Philippe Leclerc. Legionnaires had to be satisfied with dying for France, or in the words of the demi-brigade’s greatest hero, Amilakvari, “The only way for us foreigners to repay our debt to France is to die for her.” By that standard then, the dead are all French and have no debt.
As for the living, public recognition may well not have mattered to the grizzled, battle-scarred men of the 13th Demi-Brigade who survived the war. After all, the motto of the French Foreign Legion is Legio Patria Nostra — “The Legion is our homeland.”
This article was written by John W. Osborn Jr. and originally published in the December 2006 issue of Military History magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!