Wwii Essay, Research Paper
At first the intelligence officers at the headquarters of the French Foreign Legion in Sidi Bel Abb s, Algeria, were puzzled. The Legion had always had a large complement of Germans in its ranks, but now, in spite of the Nazis’ widespread campaign to discourage Germans from enlisting, even larger numbers were pouring in.
In the late 1930s, as more and more young Germans were joining that famous fighting force, the German press was violently attacking it, and the Nazi government demanded that recruiting be stopped. Books about the Legion were publicly burned in Germany, and the violence against Legion recruiting reached comic heights when Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels’ department claimed that innocent young Germans were being hypnotized into joining. In 1938, a professional hypnotist named Albert Zagula was actually arrested in Karlsruhe and charged with the offense.
Still the Germans kept joining–until half the privates and 80 percent of the noncommissioned officers in the Legion were German. Eventually, it became evident that this influx had been orchestrated by German intelligence, the Abwehr, to destroy the Legion from within. The new German legionnaires came close to achieving the Abwehr’s objective.
The French Foreign Legion had always attracted the dispossessed of every land, and in the 1930s there were plenty of refugees throughout Europe. First there were Spaniards, the losers in that country’s civil war; then there were the Jews and others fleeing Nazi persecution; later, Czechs and Poles were added to the list as the German army began its march across Europe. These recruits did not mix well with the new Germans in the Legion. The German noncommissioned officers terrorized the non-Germans under their charge. There were frequent fights and courts-martial. The officers could not trust their own noncommissioned officers. Morale in the Legion plummeted, and there was even some talk of disbanding the entire corps.
When war was declared in 1939, the situation was critical. To ease the problem, large numbers of German legionnaires were shipped off to desert outposts, and the ranks were filled with additional non-German refugees. But the French authorities still thought that there were too many Germans in the ranks, many possibly loyal Nazis, to risk sending the Legion to fight in Europe. Instead, four more foreign regiments were raised in France and trained by veteran Legion officers from North Africa. These legionnaires garrisoned the Maginot Line, the string of concrete fortresses that the French had built as their main defense against Germany. There, they remained inactive during the so-called “phony war,” when neither the Allies nor the Germans took any serious offensive action.
In spite of the general reluctance to send entire Legion units to France, the French authorities decided that something had to be done with those loyal elements of the Legion that were still marking time in North Africa and itching for a fight. In early 1940, the old Legion was given an active role. Volunteers were called for, and two battalions of 1,000 men each were assembled–one in Fez, Morocco, and the other in Sidi Bel Abb s. Volunteers for those units were carefully screened, and the only Germans left them were veteran Legionnaires of unquestioned loyalty. Those men were given new non-German names and false identity papers to protect them in case they were captured by the Germans.
The two battalions were joined into the 13th Demi-Brigade (13e Demi-Brigade de la Legion Etrangere) and put under the command of Lt. Col. Magrin-Verneret, one of those military eccentrics who so often turned up in the Foreign Legion, a hard-bitten graduate of St. Cyr and a veteran of World War I. As a result of wounds received in World War I, he had physical disabilities that should long since have disqualified him from service. Severe head wounds had been crudely operated on and left him with a nasty temper, and surgery on a smashed limb had shortened one leg, causing a noticeable limp. But he was a fighter, and that was all the Legion wanted.
When the 13th Demi-Brigade arrived in France, the always-blas legionnaires showed no surprise when they were issued a strange new type of uniform–and skis. Those veterans of the desert sands were being trained to fight in Arctic snows and outfitted as mountain troops with heavy parkas, boots and snow capes. They were bound for Finland, where the Allies were aiding the Finns in their fight against the invading Soviets, who were at that time in league with the Germans. But before the Legion left France, the Finns bowed to the overwhelming power of the Soviets and accepted the enemy’s terms. The war in Finland was over.
But there was another fight. Winston Churchill, then Britain’s first lord of the Admiralty, had urged the mining of the waters around neutral Norway, where the German navy was escorting convoys of iron ore shipped from neutral Sweden to supply the German war machine. At the same time, Adolf Hitler had decided that the Germans must seize Norway, not only to protect the ore shipments but as a naval base for surface raiders and U-boats. Soon fierce sea battles raged between the Royal Navy and the Kreigsmarine, and at sea the British had the upper hand.
Strong British land forces were also shipped to Norway, but the Germans invaded the country. By April 1940, the Germans had occupied all of the main Norwegian west coast ports–from Narvik in the north to Kristiansand in the south and around the tip of the peninsula to Oslo, the capital. British and Norwegian forces fought hard, but without success. The British were ordered to evacuate Norway.
The Allies had one more card to play. Although they had to abandon southern Norway, the Allies would attempt to wrest the northern port of Narvik from the Germans to prevent ore shipment. An amphibious assault was planned under the overall command of British Lt. Gen. Claude Auchinleck, with the protective guns of the Royal Navy and using mainly French and Polish troops. A key part of this force would be the 13th Demi-Brigade.
When his subordinates asked why the 13th Demi-Brigade was going to Norway, Magrin-Verneret’s oft-quoted reply was typical of the legionnaires’ ours-is-not-to-reason-why attitude. “Why? My orders are to take Narvik. Why Narvik? For the iron ore, for the anchovies, for the Norwegians? I haven’t the faintest idea.”
The 13th Demi-Brigade was part of a task force called the 1st Light Division, which was commanded by French General Marie Emile B thouart. The force also included units of the French 27th Chasseurs Alpins and the Polish 1st Carpathian Demi-Brigade, a mountain corps made up of refugees from conquered Poland. There were also many Norwegian units in the area still able to fight.
The plan was to sail up the series of fjords that led to the port of Narvik under the protection of the Royal Navy, which still controlled the Norwegian Sea. The 13th Demi-Brigade was to strike directly at Narvik, with its flanks guarded by the French and Polish mountain troops and the Norwegians.
Opposing the legionnaires was the German garrison under General Edouard Dietl, reinforced by the 137th Gebirgsjager regiment, a veteran mountain unit hastily drilled as paratroopers and dropped into the snow-covered hills. These tough, well-trained mountain troops were as proud of their edelweiss insignia as the Legion was of its seven-flamed grenade. They would be hard to crack.
Before the 13th Demi-Brigade could attack Narvik itself, the nearby village of Bjerkvik had to be taken, for the high ground behind it dominated the strategic port. On May 13, the 13th Demi-Brigade was landed on the Bjerkvik beaches. At midnight, the big guns of the British battleship Resolution, the cruisers Effingham and Vindictive and five destroyers opened up on the German defenders. Shortly thereafter, the advance troops hit the beaches in infantry and tank landing craft. It was the first time in the war that such combined operations took place in the face of enemy fire.
The German reaction was severe. At first light, the Luftwaffe came out, bombing and strafing the ships and beaches. The Legion pushed on in the face of artillery and small-arms fire. Colonel Magrin-Verneret waded ashore, encouraging his legionnaires forward. For a while it was touch and go. Captain Dmitri Amilakvari, a 16-year Legion veteran who was to take a key hill, was held up by furious German fire. Then, shouting “A moi la Legion!” (the Legion’s traditional version of “follow me”) to his men, he charged up the slope. The Germans fell back before the savagery of the attack, and the hill was taken. Amilakvari pushed on to Elvenes where he met up with the Chasseurs Alpins on his flank. Bjerkvik, now a smoking ruin, and the surrounding mountains fell to the French.
Then the Legion turned its attention to Narvik itself. In a repeat of the Bjerkvik attack, the port was bombarded from the sea while Allied troops poured over the surrounding mountains. Once again the Luftwaffe appeared and bombed the attacking warships, but Royal Air Force Hawker Hurricane fighters arrived on the scene in the nick of time and cleared the sky of German aircraft. On May 28, the 13th Demi-Brigade marched into Narvik and found the town deserted. The Germans had fled.
For the next few days, the legionnaires pursued the retreating enemy through the snow-covered mountains toward the Swedish border in sub-zero temperatures. Their aim was to capture Dietl and what was left of his troops or force them over the border into Swedish internment. They were just 10 miles from Sweden when they were ordered to return to France. A few weeks earlier the Germans had begun their invasion of the Low Countries, and the “phony war” was over. All the troops and equipment in Norway were needed in the defense of France. The 13th Demi-Brigade embarked for Brest happy with its victory, the first Allied success of the war, but disgusted that it had not been permitted to finish the job.
Meanwhile, those hastily raised Foreign Legion regiments at the Maginot Line were getting a baptism of fire. Much has been written of the defeat of the French army in 1940, but little is heard of the heroism of many of its beleagured units. One of those heroic units was the 11th Foreign Legion Infantry (REI). The regiment was a cadre of tough legionnaires from North Africa and recent foreign volunteers enlisted in Europe, reinforced by a battalion of unwilling French draftees. The Frenchmen disliked being thrown in with the infamous Foreign Legion, and the result was not pleasant.
In training during the “phony war” period there was much drunkenness, fighting and courts-martial, but when the German panzers broke through in May, the dissension among the 11th REI’s elements disappeared. While other French regiments were caught up in the panic, turned tail and ran before the overwhelming terror of the German tanks and Junkers Ju-87 Stuka dive bombers, the 11th REI stood firm. During two weeks of hard fighting, they held off their attackers while other French units retreated around them. Finally, almost totally surrounded, they were forced to fall back. Colonel Jean-Baptiste Robert burned the regimental standard and buried its tassel, which was later dug up and returned to the Legion. There were only 450 men of the original 3,000 left to return to North Africa with the 11th REI after the armistice.
The 97th Foreign Legion Divisional Reconnaissance Group (GERD 97) also attained glory during the 1940 debacle. It was probably the only all-veteran North African outfit of the Legion regiments in France. GERD 97 had been organized from the 1st Foreign Legion Cavalry Regiment, the Legion horse cavalry outfit that had been raised in Africa in the 1920s from the remnants of White Russian General Baron Pyotr Wrangel’s cavalry, which had been all but destroyed in the civil war against the Bolsheviks. Mechanized and outfitted with obsolete armored cars, GERD 97 carried out reconnaissance missions, but its scouting days came to an end when it ran into the powerful German Mark III tanks. In typical Legion style, GERD 97 threw itself against those monsters without hesitation, fighting rear-guard actions to cover the retreating French. GERD 97 managed to survive until June 9, when a final, suicidal charge against the panzers left all the Legion vehicles burning. There were no known survivors.
The 13th Demi-Brigade returned to France from Norway, sailing into the harbor at Brest on June 13, almost at the same time the Germans were marching into Paris. Colonel Magrin-Verneret was ordered to form a line as part of the proposed last-ditch “Breton Redoubt,” but it was no use. The Germans had broken through.
While on a forward reconnaissance mission to determine what could be done to delay the enemy, Magrin-Verneret and some of his officers became separated from the main body of the 13th Demi-Brigade, and when they returned to Brest they could not find any trace of the unit. The reconnaissance party assumed that the main body had been over-run, and the colonel determined that he and his…
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