Lieutenant Colonel Pierre Jeanpierre

On May 29, 1958, during military operations in the Guelma region of Northeastern Algeria, a helicopter hit by rebel fire crashed to the ground. On board, along with the pilot and a mechanic, Lieutenant Colonel Pierre Jeanpierre, a legendary officer of the French Foreign Legion and the head of what was then one of the best units of the French Army. All the three were dead. To this day, Lt. Col. Jeanpierre remains the last high-ranking officer of the Foreign Legion to be killed in action. The following article was written in his memory.

Lieutenant Colonel Pierre Jeanpierre - 1er REP - 1st REP - Foreign Legion - 1957
Lt. Col. Pierre Jeanpierre (1912 – 1958).


Early years and WWII

Pierre Paul Jeanpierre was born in Northeastern France’s Belfort on March 14, 1912, to a military officer. His father — a captain with an infantry regiment — was killed four years later, during WWI. Young Pierre grew up with his mother and older brother in Nevers in central France. A robust, athletic person, he later joined the Scout Movement, where he became troop leader. After surprisingly failing his high school final exams and thus losing a chance to enter the prestigious Saint-Cyr military academy, he decided to leave the town and pursue a military career from scratch. A few weeks later, in early December 1930, Pierre Jeanpierre moved to Orléans near Paris to enlist as a simple soldier in the 131st Infantry Regiment.

Rated as a very disciplined and determined man, he rose rapidly through the ranks. Only four months later, he was promoted to corporal, and in mid-1932, he became sergeant. Now a skilled military instructor, gaining respect for his leadership qualities, Jeanpierre was selected to attend the Saint-Maixent military school for elite non-commissioned officers. He entered the school in 1935 and left it eighteen months later, as a second lieutenant (1935-37 Verdun Class). He immediately chose to serve with the famous Foreign Legion in North Africa.

Therefore, in May 1937, Second Lieutenant Jeanpierre was assigned as an instructor to the 1st Training Company of the Legion’s DCRE in Bedeau and, later, Ain El Hadjar, Algeria.

In mid-1938, he left Algeria for the 2e REI in Morocco. There, in October, he was promoted to lieutenant. With the regiment’s 2nd Battalion, he deployed in mid-1939 to the French Levant (Syria and Lebanon), where his unit became part of the newly established 6e REI. In the meantime, in late 1939, the Second World War broke out in Europe. In France, the fighting eventually ended in June 1940, with the signing of the armistice with Germany. In mid-1941, this delicate geopolitical situation led to the British invasion of the French Levant. Lieutenant Jeanpierre actively participated, as a platoon leader with the 9th Company, 6e REI. He distinguished himself during the bloody battles with Australian troops in Lebanon’s Marjayoun and was mentioned in dispatches.

In mid-July, the Levant was seized by the British, and the French had to leave the territory. The 6e REI moved to Southern France. There, Lieutenant Jeanpierre was gradually assigned to Foreign Legion centers in Lunel and Marseille. Nevertheless, in early November 1942, following the Allied invasion of French North Africa, he was put on prolonged leave, ordered by German authorities. At the same time, he married his school love, Janine Gaillard.

Throughout 1943, Jeanpierre served in the illegal Resistance movement. In January 1944, four months after his first daughter was born, he was arrested by the Gestapo and deported to Nazi Germany’s Mauthausen concentration camp. He wasn’t released until the end of WWII in Europe, in May 1945.

Lieutenant Pierre Jeanpierre - 2e REI - 2 REI - Foreign Legion - 1939
Lieutenant Jeanpierre from the 2e REI before embarking for the French Levant, April 1939. The rare photo appeared in a great book by Raymond Muelle: Lieutenant-colonel Jeanpierre, Soldat de légende (Esprit du Livre, 2007).


During the Indochina War

Promoted to captain in September 1945 (with retroactive effect from March 1943), the 33-year-old officer was assigned to command the Foreign Legion recruiting center in Kehl, Germany. He served there until mid-1948 and had two more daughters.

In August 1948, Captain Jeanpierre returned to Algeria and joined the freshly constituted 1st Foreign Parachute Battalion (1er BEP) under Captain Segrétain, his company commander from the 6e REI; Jeanpierre now became his deputy. In November, their battalion left Africa for French Indochina in Southeast Asia to conduct operations against the Viet Minh insurgents during the First Indochina War (1946-1954).

In mid-September 1950, a few weeks before the prescribed two-year rotation of the men, the battalion was sent to That Khe, a town in the Cao Bang region, Northern Vietnam. The Legion paratroopers were to support the French retreating along the RC4 road and retard the enemy’s advance. In the following fierce battles that occurred in early October and took several days, then-Major Segrétain was killed and his 1er BEP annihilated. Only a handful of men survived, led by Captain Jeanpierre. Wounded in April 1949, the latter was four times mentioned in dispatches during his service in Indochina, and was awarded the prestigious Legion of Honor.

Repatriated in November 1950, he was promoted to major in January 1951. In May, Major Jeanpierre took over command of the 2nd Battalion 1er REI (now 1er RE), a basic instruction unit located in Mascara, Algeria. For three years, he devoted himself to the training of fresh volunteers. He had two more daughters; the fourth was born in 1949, the fifth in 1951.

Meanwhile, in mid-1954, the war in Indochina was over. In October, Major Jeanpierre returned there to reconstitute the 1er BEP, once again lost in combat. However, in February 1955, he and his unit were back in Algeria, where another war had just begun.

Captain Jeanpierre - Hanoi - Indochina - 1er BEP - 1st BEP - Foreign Legion - 1950
Captain Jeanpierre (right) in Hanoi, French Indochina, 1950. Left, Major Segrétain (1er BEP commander), killed later that year. Photo credit: Raymond Muelle: Lieutenant-colonel Jeanpierre, Soldat de légende (Esprit du Livre, 2007).


Algerian War

For ten months, the battalion carried out tasks during the harsh campaign in the Aurés and Nementchas mountains, in Northeastern Algeria; Major Jeanpierre was again mentioned in dispatches. In late 1955, the 1er BEP became the 1st Foreign Parachute Regiment (1er REP). Jeanpierre was appointed second-in-command, under Lieutenant Colonel Brothier.

In October 1956, Major Jeanpierre was promoted to lieutenant colonel. The next month, he and the regiment participated in Operation Musketeer in Egypt, during the Suez Crisis.

Back in Algeria, the Battle of Algiers started in the capital for the regiment in January 1957. Two months later, Lieutenant Colonel Jeanpierre replaced Brothier and took over the 1er REP. During the ongoing anti-terrorist operations in the capital, he was once again mentioned in dispatches. He always worked hard. On his feet day and night, he set up an efficient intelligence network that bore fruit in late September. Jeanpierre located important rebel political-military leader Yacef Saadi and was the first to enter his hideout; when Yacef defended himself with grenades, the lieutenant colonel was the first to be wounded. Nevertheless, the rebel leader was captured. Two weeks later, another important rebel military leader, Ali la Pointe, was shot dead by the 1er REP men. From then on, Algiers would live in peace; terrorism had disappeared. Lieutenant Colonel Jeanpierre received another mention in dispatches and was exceptionally appointed Commander of the Legion of Honor.

In late January 1958, the 1er REP moved to the Algeria-Tunisia border to operate there against rebel groups regularly crossing it. Jeanpierre was fighting a real war there. Within four months of the so-called Battle of the Borders, his regiment had achieved a success unseen since the beginning of the Algerian War: 1,193 rebels were killed and the border was cleared. Unfortunately, in the very last battle in the designated sector, Lieutenant Colonel Jeanpierre died; he was 46 years old.

On May 29, 1958, the 1er REP was sent to Djebel Mermera, a mountain ridge located west of Guelma, where the presence of two rebel groups was reported. Around 2 p.m., two 1er REP companies were engaged. To locate the enemy and navigate his men, Jeanpierre boarded an Alouette II helicopter. He made several passes at very low altitude, under fire from several automatic weapons. Suddenly, the helicopter began an oblique fall and disappeared into the bushes covering the terrain. One of the paratrooper platoons hurried toward the crash site. As it turned out, the helicopter’s fuel supply line had been cut by bullets from a rebel machine gun. It came down on the ridge, hit a rock, and flipped onto its right side. The legionnaires pulled their colonel from the wreckage. He was taken to safety behind a rock, sheltered under a tent. Nonetheless, the medic who arrived could only confirm his death. It was 3 p.m.

An excellent military strategist, always strict, disciplined, but also humane, fair, and courageous, Lieutenant Colonel Pierre Jeanpierre was very popular among his men and retained a natural authority. Two times wounded, nine times mentioned in dispatches, he was awarded the Resistance Medal, the War Cross 1939–1945, the Foreign Theater Operations War Cross, the Indochina Commemorative Medal, and the Commander of the Légion d’honneur (Legion of Honor).

On May 31, his funeral took place in Guelma. It was attended by nearly 10,000 people, including many generals and French authorities. Later, the body would be brought to France and, on August 14, buried in the cemetery in Nevers. In 1969, his remains were transported to Puyloubier and buried in the main Foreign Legion cemetery.

In summer 1958, the camp of the 1er REP in Zeralda was renamed after their killed colonel, as well as the local main square, in 1959. In 1960, a new two-year class at the prestigious Saint-Cyr military academy chose for themselves the name of the famous Legion officer. In 1977, a memorial dedicated to Lt. Col. Jeanpierre was unveiled in the cemetery of Nevers by local paratrooper veterans, in the presence of Madame Jeanpierre. In early 1978, in the well-known French Riviera town of Nice, the Square of Colonel Jeanpierre was inaugurated, located close to the main railway station. Two years later, a memorial to the fallen officer was unveiled there, too.


1er REP - 1 REP - Foreign Legion Etrangere - 1956 - Jeanpierre - Brothier
Major Jeanpierre (left) in 1956, with Lt. Col. Brothier, his regiment commander at the time. There was a certain animosity between the two men since Jeanpierre was a more action-oriented person.

1er REP - 1 REP - Foreign Legion Etrangere - 1956 - Egypt - Jeanpierre - Massu - Brothier
British-French Operation Musketeer in Egypt, early November 1956. Lt. Col. Jeanpierre on the left, Lt. Col. Brothier on the right. In the middle, General Massu, commander of the French part of the operation.
1er REP - 1 REP - Foreign Legion Etrangere - 1957 - Jeanpierre - Massu
Lt. Col. Jeanpierre, now head of the 1er REP, decorated by General Massu in late April 1957.
1er REP - 1 REP - Foreign Legion Etrangere - 1957 - Jeanpierre - Paris - Champs Elysées
Lt. Col. Jeanpierre and his 1er REP’s color guard and a honor detachment march down the Champs Elysées in Paris, during the 1957 Bastille Day Parade.
Lieutenant Colonel Pierre Jeanpierre - 1er REP - 1st REP - Foreign Legion - 1957
Lt. Col. Jeanpierre in Algeria in 1957. The 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.
Lieutenant Colonel Pierre Jeanpierre - 1er REP - 1st REP - Foreign Legion - 1957
Lt. Col. Jeanpierre during the Battle of the Borders in the Guelma region, 1958.
1er REP - 1 REP - Foreign Legion Etrangere - Guelma - Pierre Jeanpierre - Homage
Paying homage to Lt. Col. Jeanpierre in Guelma, May 31, 1958. For the last time, the 1er REP parade in front of their fallen commanding officer. The ceremony was attended by nearly 10,000 people.
1er REP - 1 REP - Foreign Legion Etrangere - Algiers - Lt Colonel Pierre Jeanpierre - funeral
Funeral of Lt. Col. Jeanpierre in Algiers, May 31, 1958. In the afternoon, the body was transported from Guelma to the capital and buried there. Six senior NCOs of the 1er REP are carrying the coffin of their beloved leader. Later that year, the body was brought to France and buried in Nevers.
1er REP - 1 REP - Foreign Legion Etrangere - Puyloubier - Pierre Jeanpierre - Homage
In 1969, the body of the fallen colonel was transported from Nevers to the Foreign Legion cemetery in Puyloubier, Southern France. There, on September 25, it was buried in the presence of Madame Jeanpierre (in the image) and their five daughters.
Foreign Legion Etrangere - Nevers - Lt Colonel Jeanpierre - Memorial - 1977
A memorial dedicated to Lt. Col. Jeanpierre was unveiled in Nevers in June 1977.
Foreign Legion Etrangere - Nice - Lt Colonel Jeanpierre - Memorial - Square - 1980
In early 1978, a square in Nice was renamed after the fallen colonel. Two years later, in February 1980, a memorial to him was unveiled at the same square.
Foreign Legion Etrangere - Calvi - Corsica - 2e REP - Lt Colonel Jeanpierre - helicopter wreckage - 2012
In 2012, the Hall of Honor of the 2e REP at Calvi, Corsica, got the rare Alouette II wreckage from the 1958 crash.
Lieutenant Colonel Pierre Jeanpierre - 1er REP - 1st REP - Foreign Legion - Puyloubier - Grave - 2010s
The grave of Lt. Col. Jeanpierre in Puyloubier. Photo credit: Krzysztof Schramm.



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