1933 Battle of Bou Gafer

In Morocco in late February 1933, the violent Battle of Bou Gafer took place. It marked the culmination of operations against the rebel-occupied Djebel Sagho range, one of the last stages of France’s pacification of the country. Men from four mounted companies of the Foreign Legion actively participated in the battle.

Battle of Bou Gafer - Djebel Sagho - Morocco - 1933 - Foreign Legion



The Moroccan campaign saw the Foreign Legion fight without respite, from the initial landing in Casablanca in 1907 through the last battles in the south of the country in 1934. After the suppressing of the stubborn Tafilalt Oasis in 1932, the insurgents held only two final bastions in Morocco: the crests in the High Atlas and Debel Sagho mountains and the desert region of the Anti-Atlas range, close to the Moroccan border with Mauritania.

The Djebel Sagho (also known as Djebel Saghro or Sahrho), where operations began in February 1933, is a mountain range about 90 miles (140 km) long and 25 miles (40 km) wide, with almost unapproachable peaks reaching over 6,500 feet (2,000 m). The range constitutes the eastern part of the Anti-Atlas region in southwestern Morocco. The highest point of the Djebel Sagho is the Bou Gafer massif, serving as the last refuge for the unyielding rebels at the time. All the Berber tribes who had refused the French presence for the past decades had entrenched themselves there: the Aït Hammoun, the Aït Noghad, and the Aït Atta.

In early 1933, under General Huré, two French mobile task forces were formed, commanded by Generals Giraud and Catroux. Their goal was to take over the Bou Gafer massif and achieve the surrender of the well-fortified rebels.

On February 13, the Bou Gafer rebels tried to loosen the stranglehold that was closing in on them by launching furious assaults. These attacks, and the ensuing counter-attacks, continued until February 25 with some successes for the French side.

Morocco - Foreign Legion Etrangere - Djebel Sagho - Saghro
The Djebel Sagho range in Morocco.
Morocco - Foreign Legion Etrangere - Bou Gafer
The Bou Gafer massif within the Djebel Sagho.
Morocco - Foreign Legion Etrangere - Djebel Sagho - Saghro - Camp - 1933
A French forward military camp of a mobile task force in early 1933. The camp is installed south of the Djebel Sagho range, seen in the background.


Battle of Bou Gafer: Preparations

On February 26, 1933, the units that were to participate in the attack gathered near the Bou Gafer massif. Oriented East to West, the massif is about one mile (1,5 km) long, consisting of numerous crests and steep peaks. Over a thousand determined rebel warriors were entrenched there with their families, waiting for the French troops. The most important task of the day was to conquere Hill 6 (Piton 6), the main peak of the Bou Gafer and the key position held by the rebels. To reach it, other fortified insurgent positions hidden in the rocky massif had to be overrun.

At about 5 a.m. on February 28, several hundred men of General Giraud’s mobile task force were assembled, waiting for 7 a.m., the H-hour. They formed two assault detachments, one led by Major Fouré of the Legion and the second led by Captain de Bournazel, the famous officer known as the “Man in the Red Jacket” (or simply the “Red Man,” Homme Rouge) because of his Spahis outfit. Both detachments were composed of Moroccan Goumiers (indigenous light infantry), Moroccan partisans (non-regular auxiliaries), and legionnaires. The latter came from the mounted companies of the 2e REI, the 3e REI, and the motorized platoons of the 1er REI’s two mounted companies.

It was cold that morning; the sky was a dirty gray, and a fine, tight rain was quickly pouring down on them. It was forbidden to light a fire or smoke to prevent a nearby enemy from detecting their presence. With no chance even to drink hot coffee, the soaked legionnaires shivered silently in their unprotective uniforms. Less than a hundred yards away from them was a rocky ridge occupied by several Chleuhs (a nickname for the High Atlas Berbers). One legionnaire raised his head to look at it and took a bullet immediately. His body fell, wracked with nervous tremors, but the other legionnaires could only quietly watch while the the blood from his wound dripped in a small gutter down the slope. He was the first victim of the day. It was 6:30 a.m.

On the legionnaires’ right, Moroccan troops in striped djellabas (loose-fitting North African outer robes) were massed along the same ridge. Captain de Bournazel, himself wearing a djellaba instead of his trademark red jacket, was talking to his non-commissioned officers. He was smiling.

Then the command was given in a low voice: “Bayonet to the gun!”

Before the general attack, six Potez planes arrived to bomb and gun the Bou Gafer, while Giraud’s task force, posted a little further away, used their Hotchkiss machine guns, 81 mm Stokes mortars and 75 mm J. D. (Jouhandeau-Deslandres) mortars to open a hell of fire on the same objective.


Battle of Bou Gafer: The attack

At seven o’clock, the shout came: “Forward!” Hundreds of shots rang out, and long bursts of automatic weapon fire followed one another. The waiting legionnaires jumped up as one man; some were mowed down from the start, while others were already running down the slope toward a small ravine that separated the two ridges. The men who made it there alive immediately started climbing. The smoke from exploding grenades created a light fog that stung their eyes. Lieutenant Margot of the Mounted Company, 2e REI stood elegantly by, his gloves in one hand, his cane in the other, calmly giving his orders while ignoring the enemy bullets whizzing past him. A little further on, Corporal Louvet of the same company, covered in blood, held his stomach with both hands, his eyes closed.

At the same time, the Moroccans and the legionnaires of the Mounted Company, 2e REI of the Bournazel detachment went up toward the enemy ridge, from which a very violent and deadly fire started. After a terrible bayonet assault, the ridge was finally reached and occupied. A small victory for the French troops. The men stop there for a while, pressed against the countless rebel corpses. But the Chleuh had retreated to the next ridge, about 150 yards away.

Once again, the French troops faced a descent to another ravine which separated the conquered ridge and the insurgents’ next position. The raging whistles of the enemy’s big lead bullets accompanied Bournazel’s Moroccans and legionnaires. They took the ridge with grenades, despite desperate resistance from the rebels. Then came another stop, which the platoon leaders or their replacements took advantage of to regroup their men.

In front of them, a steep slope stretched up to the Bou Gafer, whose summit (Hill 6) loomed at about 2,600 feet (800 meters). Here and there stood outcroppings of rocks, each of which represented a pocket of enemy resistance.

Lieutenant Garnier, commander of the 2e REI’s Mounted Company, had been wounded during the previous assault and was replaced by Lieutenant Cerruti, himself wounded. The legionnaires continued forward, having to advance in quick movements, as there was not much cover. But suddenly, a few dozen yards ahead of them, they saw the Moroccan auxiliary troops drop their weapons on the ground. Completely panic-stricken, their eyes bulging out, the Moroccans run away toward the legionnaires as the Chleuh chased them and hacked into their backs with their long sabers.

What had happened? It soon became clear that Captain de Bournazel, whose legend had said he was invulnerable, had been badly wounded in the stomach. He was now pale, his life slowly slipping away. That day, he had been ordered to exchange his famous red jacket for a less conspicuous djellaba. His men, mostly from the Branes tribe, had seen their leader fall and probably believed it to be an evil omen. As a result, they had panicked and decided to abandon the fight immediately.

The French progress was interrupted and the enemy fire increased in intensity. The situation became critical. But suddenly, a powerful voice rose over the noise of the battle and shouted a command, which was repeated by ten, twenty, a hundred voices, then by all: “Forward, the Legion!” And the Legion, once again, shook itself and attacked.

Morocco - Foreign Legion Etrangere - Bou Gafer - Djebel Sagho - Lieutenants Garnier - Cerruti - Thirion - 1933
With a kepi, lieutenants of the Mounted Company, 2e REI close to the Bou Gafer, in mid-February 1933. From left to right: Thirion, Cerruti, Garnier. The latter led his company during the battle of Bou Gafer. When wounded, he was replaced by Lt. Cerruti, himself injured. The rare photo was provided to our website and published with the kind permission of Krzysztof Schramm, historian of the A.A.A.L.E. de Pologne veteran association and the author of Zygmunt Jatczak: I regret nothing.
Morocco - Moroccan partisans - Djebel Sagho
French leaders and their Moroccan partisans, early 1930s.


Battle of Bou Gafer: The avoided massacre

A group from the 1er REI’s Motorized Platoon, CMA (Algerian Mounted Company) arrived in small numbers on a narrow plateau, which was more of a rocky ridge. Lieutenant M. spotted movement in the front line, some fifty yards ahead of them, and ordered: “Machine guns in battery and fire at will!”

With his MG (machine gun), Corporal Dollé of this group crossed the distance that separated him from a huge block of stone constituting a perfect shooting site. A few steps ahead of him, the seriously wounded Lieutenant Binet, from Captain de Bournazel’s group, was dragging himself along, supported by a legionnaire. At the end of his strength, the officer gasped his last breath and collapsed helplessly. A platoon under Lieutenant Jeanpierre (don’t confuse him with the famous officer of the 1er REP) from the Mounted Company, 3e REI would carry out a bayonet charge to secure the body of Lt. Binet some time later.

Three magazines were quickly fired by Corporal Dollé. A few yards to his right was Senior Corporal Betting, also from the CMA, joking with him. Betting’s fourteen years of service in the North African desert and brilliant results gave him an incomparable calm in combat, and he coolly commanded the fire of his MG team. He had barely enough time to inform Dollé that their comrade Laplace had just been killed. A few seconds later, the senior corporal hung his head, himself fatally struck.

Not far from the corporal, two MG teams – one from the Mounted Company, 2e REI, the other from the Mounted Company, 3e REI – continued firing.

Taking the empty magazines, Dollé quickly moved about a dozen yards back to the other side of a low man-made stone wall, where he found his company’s Captain Taguet and about 100 men belonging to all the Legion units that had taken part in the battle.

At the same time, some groups had already passed the last ridge, in particular the 4th Platoon of the Mounted Company, 2e REI, commanded by Adjudant Mihalovitch (Adjudant is a rank equivalent to Sergeant First Class in the U.S. or Warrant Officer in the UK). Comprising about twenty men, this platoon was occupying a small peak which had a curious bowl-shaped top; it was located around 300 yards ahead of Captain Taguet’s position.

But the losses were already very high and the hardest part of the battle was not yet over. The lines had to be fixed; it was impossible to advance any further without risking an unnecessary massacre. The high command therefore decided to stop the assault, and the units were ordered to settle on the conquered positions.

For the 4th Platoon, there was no question of withdrawing to the new line of defense (Captain Taguet’s position behind the quickly built stone wall) before nightfall. The rebels attacked the platoon several times, coming as near as twenty yards. Each time the grenades and rifles of the legionnaires, as well as the shells of the task force’s artillery, caused them severe losses. However, Adjudant Mihalovitch, who was very calm and popular among the men, was soon killed, as were other legionnaires in his platoon. When night fell, only twelve of them remained alive, under the command of Sergeant Portigliatti.

Behind their position was Captain de Bournazel, mortally wounded. On their left were Lieutenant Brencklé and thirteen legionnaires from the platoon of the Motorized Mounted Company, 1er REI. It was this pure Legion officer and his men who had approached closest to the sinister enemy position that day. Now they were lying there motionless, all dead.

Following the unwritten tradition of the Legion regarding wounded or killed officers, a legionnaire of the CMA group went to pick up Lieutenant Brencklé. Immediately afterward, he collapsed with a serious injury to his leg caused by an enemy bullet; his foot would be amputated a few days later. A second legionnaire picked up the first one, but was wounded himself; another jumped toward the body of the officer, and was hit in his turn. The legionnaires had to be forbidden to leave the lines, and had to wait until nightfall to collect their dead and wounded.

However, the groans of the wounded were disheartening. One young Pole, Wichowski of the CMA, had been shot in the forehead just as he arrived at the position in the morning. The poor legionnaire took all day to die.

For the rest of the day, the men on the various posts remained pinned down. The enemy was always ready and each imprudent raising of the body was immediately met by a shot, few of which missed their targets.

For four days, the legionnaires occupying the slope of Hill 6 held their positions. Afterward they were relieved by the Moroccan riflemen, but the attack was not resumed. The high command deemed it pointless to send other troops in to be massacred where the Legion had not succeeded.

Morocco - Foreign Legion Etrangere - Bou Gafer - Djebel Sagho - Captain Taguet - Lieutenant Thevenot - 1933
Another rare photo shows Captain Taguet and Lieutenant Thevenot of the Algerian Mounted Company (CMA), 1er REI close to the Bou Gafer, in mid-February 1933. Collection of Krzysztof Schramm.
Morocco - Foreign Legion Etrangere - Bou Gafer - Djebel Sagho - Lieutenant Brencklé - 1933
Lieutenant Emile Brencklé, killed at the Bou Gafer on February 28, 1933. He and his group of 13 legionnaires from the Motorized Mounted Company, 1er REI were able to get closest to the enemy that day. Nobody of them survived.



In the Battle of Bou Gafer on February 28, 1933, the legionnaires of the mounted companies of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Foreign Regiments fought in incredibly difficult conditions, accomplishing real rock climbing feats, under intense enemy fire.

In spite of everything, the Legion continued to repel the enemy and to advance whenever it had the opportunity, combining the courage and discretion which are the classic qualities of true soldiers. Even so, the rebels had superior numbers and were thoroughly fortified, and thus the Bou Gafer massif, their last bastion, remained unconquered.

The Legion losses were very high that day: at least 32 men were killed, including Captain Paul Faucheux (commander of the 3e REI’s Mounted Company), Lieutenant Emile Brencklé, Adjudant Mihalovitch, Staff Sergeant Peeters, and Sergeants Anely, Augstein, Holendorf, Jirovec, Kramer, Lay, Steffenhagen, and Warmser. Many more men were wounded.

Although he was not a legionnaire, we must also mention the legendary Captain Henri de Bournazel, who was among those killed at the Bou Gafer and whose death made this battle famous all across the French Empire. According to the Moroccans, their captain had the particularity of sending back the bullets of those who had the impudence to aim at him. But on February 28, 1933, following the formal order of his superior, Captain de Bournazel did not wear his famous red jacket. He was fatally wounded and his men abandoned him in panic. Thus, it was the Legion who had to charge and recover his body. We will quote here the moving testimony given at the time by Captain Bonnet of the Colonial Infantry:

“Suddenly, Bournazel fell. His collapse caused panic among the partisans and the goumiers. And then we see the Legion – this magnificent Legion where one toils, where one dies with a good heart and hand in hand – moving forward slowly, calm and resolute, with a firm and regular step. As far as the eye can reach, one sees the khaki kepis; they advance in perfect order, as if on exercise. The men go forward, dusty, full of blood, shattered but radiant, their chests offered, a lightning in their eyes, their jaws tightened. On them rains the hail of bullets that dig awful furrows. But what does it matter! The living whirlwind enters the bloody melee and reaches the place where the glorious captain had just fallen.”

Following the battle, General Huré changed the French strategy and organized a strict blockade of the Bou Gafer in order to starve the defenders of this natural citadel. After several weeks, the rebels agreed to surrender. They came down from their eagle’s nest to hand themselves over to the French troops. Their leader, Hasso ou Baslam (also written Assou Oubasslam), presented himself to General Huré and surrendered on March 25.

Nevertheless, some diehard insurgent elements succeeded in breaking the encirclement. The legionnaires found them in the High Atlas mountains during the summer of 1933, and forced them to surrender after the hard fighting at the Aghbalou toward summer’s end.

Finally, in early 1934, a motorized operation was launched in southern Morocco – the very first of its kind carried out by the French Army, with the major participation of four Foreign Legion units. The operation was successful and marked the very end of the pacification of Morocco. With this, one chapter of history ended.

Following the battle, a memorial was unveiled at the Bou Gafer, to commemorate the fallen men of the French task forces.


Morocco - Foreign Legion Etrangere - Bou Gafer - Djebel Sagho - Captain Paul Faucheux - 1933
Captain Paul Faucheux. He was killed at the Bou Gafer on February 28, 1933, when commanding the 3e REI’s Mounted Company. Collection of Krzysztof Schramm.

Morocco - Djebel Sagho - General Huré - Hasso ou Baslam - Assou Oubasslam - 1933
On March 25, 1933, General Huré receives surrender from Hasso ou Baslam (also written Assou Oubasslam), the leader of the Bou Gafer insurgents.
Morocco - Foreign Legion Etrangere - Bou Gafer - Djebel Sagho - Legionnaires - wounded - 1933
Evacuation of a legionnaire who was wounded during the 1933 Battle of Bou Gafer.
Morocco - Bou Gafer - Djebel Sagho - Postcard
A French outpost in the Djebel Sagho range, close to the Bou Gafer, 1933.
Morocco - Foreign Legion Etrangere - Bou Gafer - Djebel Sagho - Memorial
The Bou Gafer massif where a violent battle took place on February 28, 1933. In the bottom left corner, the site of the memorial of the battle.
Morocco - Foreign Legion Etrangere - Bou Gafer - Djebel Sagho - Memorial - 2018
The abandoned, vandalized Bou Gafer memorial, as captured by a tourist in 2018.
Morocco - Bou Gafer - Djebel Sagho - Captain Henry de Bournazel - 1933
Captain Henry de Bournazel, the famous Homme Rouge (Red Man), bearing his legendary red jacket of the Spahi light cavalry. He was killed at the Bou Gafer on February 28, 1933. Considered invulnerable, he had been ordered that day to exchange the famous red jacket for a less conspicuous djellaba. His Moroccans abandoned their fatally wounded leader in a complete panic which caused the failure of the battle.



Main information sources:
Képi blanc magazines
Jacques Hortes: Les Compagnies montées de la Légion étrangère (Editions Gandini, 2001)
Pierre Montagnon: Histoire de la Légion (Pygmalion, 1999)
P. Cart-Tanneur & Tibor Szecsko: Le 3ème Etranger (Editions e.F.m., 1988)


Foreign Legion Info store - Banner
You can support this website at any time through our store. Thank you.
EU-based readers can visit our EU-based shop, to avoid import charges.


More about the history of the Foreign Legion:
1863 Battle of Camerone
1882 Battle of Chott Tigri
1908 Forthassa Disaster
1911 Battle of Alouana
1952 Battle of Na San



The page was updated on: March 05, 2023


↑ Back to Top