1978 Battle of Kolwezi

The Battle of Kolwezi (also Operation Bonite or Operation Leopard) was an airborne operation conducted in May 1978 in then Zaire (Democratic Republic of the Congo now), Central Africa. Its mission was to rescue over 2,000 European hostages held in the city of Kolwezi, an important mining center in the Katanga province of southern Zaire. The hostages were captured by Tigers, the Katangese rebels from the left-wing Congolese National Liberation Front (FNLC).

The operation was successfully carried out by legionnaires from the 2nd Foreign Parachute Regiment (2e REP) of the French Foreign Legion. The Battle of Kolwezi was part of the Second War of Shaba (then title of the Katanga province), fought between Zaire and the FNLC. Because of the successful operation and its international media coverage, the 2e REP became popular across the world.

Battle of Kolwezi - Operation Leopard - Operation Bonite

 

1978 Battle of Kolwezi: Prelude

May 13, 1978

Kolwezi invaded by rebels
– an important mining center in then southern Zaire
– invaded by around 3-4,000 Katangese rebels
– led by Nathanael Mbumba
– over 2,000 Europeans captured as hostages
– mostly of French and Belgian origin

– rebels started to loot the city
– they also raped girls and women and were killing local residents

– the government of Zaire contacted Belgium, France, Morocco and the U.S.
– it asked them to help Zaire with restoring order

 

May 15-18, 1978

– the majority of rebels left the city
– only about 500 rebels stayed there
– most of them are stationed at Manika
– the outskirts of Kolwezi

 

1978 Battle of Kolwezi

May 17, 1978 – Wednesday

2e REP put on alert
– 10:00 AM (10h00), 2e REP put on alert
2nd Foreign Parachute Regiment
– commanded by Lt Colonel Philippe Erulin
– the only airborne unit of the Foreign Legion
– being composed of around 750 men at the time
– based at Calvi, Corsica
– France’s rapid reaction force
– part of the 11th Parachute Division (11e DP)

– 08:00 PM (20h00), 2e REP is ready for departure

 

May 18, 1978 – Thursday

Operation Bonite (Operation Leopard in Zaire)
– 02:20 AM (02h20), Operation Bonite started
– the whole regiment was alerted
– 04:30 AM (04h30), first 2e REP elements left Calvi for Solenzara
Solenzara Air Base, a French Air Force base
– located in eastern Corsica
– some 80 miles (130 km) south-east of Calvi

– 11:30 AM (11h30), the complete 2e REP at Solenzara
General Lacaze arrived
– then head of the 11th Parachute Division
– a former commander of the regiment (1967-70)
– he clarified the mission to the legionnaires

– the same day, several aircrafts arrived at Solenzara
– four Douglas DC-8 jet airliners
– a Boeing 707 jet airliner

 
Movement to Zaire
– later that day, the five jet airliners left Solenzara
– they moved to Kinshasa, the capital of Zaire
– 11:00 PM (23h00), the first jet airliner landed at Kinshasa
– 11:00 AM (11h00), May 19, the last jet airliner landed at Kinshasa

 

2 REP - Battle of Kolwezi - 1978 - Zaire - Kolwezi - Map
Zaire and the location of Kolwezi.

2 REP - Battle of Kolwezi - 1978 - Solenzara - Corsica - Loading
Solenzara, Corsica, May 18, 1978. The 2e REP legionnaires are loading a U.S.A.F. aircraft supporting their mission in Kolwezi.
2 REP - Battle of Kolwezi - 1978 - Solenzara - Erulin - General Lacaze
Solenzara, Corsica, May 18, 1978. General Lacaze (right), the head of the 11e DP and a former commander of the regiment, is reviewing the 2e REP before leaving Corsica for Zaire. He is accompanied by Lt Col Erulin (left), the then commanding officer.
2 REP - Battle of Kolwezi - 1978 - Solenzara - Corsica - Departure
Solenzara, Corsica, May 18, 1978. The 2e REP legionnaires are boarding a U.S.A.F. aircraft to be transported to Zaire.

 

May 19, 1978 – Friday

Movement to Kolwezi
– in the morning, preparation of an airborne operation
– at the air base of Kinshasa
– to transport first 2e REP elements to Kolwezi
– at the time, only a half of the regiment was present there
– three companies of the 2e REP
1st Company + 2nd Company + 3rd Company
– also a reduced HQ + a medical group

– the 2e REP units boarded five military aircrafts
– four Lockheed C-130 Hercules (Zairian Army)
– a Transall C-160 (French Air Force)

– 10:30 AM (10h30), the first C-130 Hercules left Kinshasa
– followed by the four military aircrafts
– the flight to Kolwezi took four hours
– the town lies 930 miles (1,500 km) south-east of Kinshasa

 
First jump over Kolwezi
– 03:15 PM (15h15), first legionnaires jumped over Kolwezi
– 381 men together
– they jumped over Drop Zone Alpha
– the drop zone was 875 yeards (800 m) long
– covered by high grass and 16-foot (4 m) termite mounds
– located near the center of the city
– between a Police station and a local hotel
– close to the Old Town of Kolwezi

– the legionnaires were eqipped with U.S. T-10 S parachutes
– they were dropped from two doors, by 20 men
– each Hercules had some 80 legionnaires on board
– that means two dropping waves had to be done

– on the ground, the legionnaires were assembled by their units
– their mission started
– however, six legionnaires were already wounded

First killed legionnaire
– during the regrouping, a legionnaire missed
Corporal Robert Arnold
– a young British member of the 1st Company
– the next day, he would be found to be massacred by rebels
– still equipped with his parachute

 
Battle of Kolwezi
– 2e REP units were sent to occupy several strategic points

– Strategic points to be occupied by 2e REP units

  • Jean XXIII Lycée (a high school): 1st Company
  • Hospital + Gecamines Factory: 2nd Company + HQ
  • Impala Hotel: 3rd Company

Impala Hotel was used by rebels as their HQ
– in the Hospital, Europeans are held by rebels
Gecamines Factory, there could be vehicles to motorize the units

– 3rd Company had also another two missions
– to seize a train station in the center of Kolwezi
– to seize an important bridge
– located between the Old Town and the New Town

– when entering the town, a battle started
– urban warfare between rebels and 2e REP legionnaires
– the rebels fought in all main streets
– the fighting took about two hours

 
Recapture of Kolwezi
– 05:45 PM (17h45), Kolwezi was recaptured
– all strategic points were seized
– the majority of Europeans were rescued
– a large number of rebels were killed
– tens of weapons captured

 
Second jump over Kolwezi cancellation
– in the evening, the second jump over Kolwezi was cancelled
– 05:55 PM (17h55), the rest of the 2e REP should jump over Kolwezi
4th Company
Reconnaissance Platoon (SER)
81 Mortar Platoon (S81)
– the rest of the HQ

– the jump was eventually cancelled
– because of several factors
– it was already dark
– the drop zone wasn’t safe for a night jump
– the strategic points were seized
– the majority of Europeans were rescued
– the rebels were pushed out of the city

– the aircrafts with legionnaires moved to Lubumbashi
– the second largest city of then Zaire
– situated some 155 miles (250 km) south-east of Kolwezi
– the legionnaires of the second wave would spend the night there

 
Night fights in Kolwezi
– during the night, new fights reopened
– under cover of darkness, the rebels launched attacks
– the fights took all the night
– many rebels were killed
– other weapons were captured

 
Military equipment from Corsica to Zaire
– in Corsica, 2e REP military equipment loading
– 2e REP vehicles in the vast majority + 80 drivers
– at the Solenzara Air Base
– loaded on board of U.S. Air Force transport aircrafts
– several Lockheed C-141 Starlifter airlifters
– but they weren’t able to transport all vehicles
– a Lockheed C-5 Galaxy aircraft had to arrive
– the then largest military aircraft within the U.S.A.F.
– part of the 3rd Military Airlift Squadron [1]
– the loading of the C-5 Galaxy took all the night + morning of May 20
– May 20, the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy moved to Zaire
– it would land at Lubumbashi, to be unloaded there

– the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy would support the 2e REP until May 24 [2]
– the aircraft continued the flights in, to and out of Libreville, Gabon
– a former colony of France, with a French military base
– it moved between Gabon and Kinshasa and Lubumbashi
– to re-supply the 2e REP legionnaires on a regular basis

[1], [2]: All of these unique information about the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy aircraft and its mission during May 19-24 were provided to the Foreign Legion Info website by John “Jack” Legere (Sergeant, 3rd Military Airlift Squadron at the time of the operation), a crewmember of the aircraft

 

2 REP - Battle of Kolwezi - 1978 - Kinshasa
Kinshasa, the capital of Zaire, May 19. The 2e REP legionnaires equip themselves with U.S. T-10 S parachutes to jump with them over Kolwezi later that day.

2 REP - Battle of Kolwezi - 1978 - Kinshasa
Kinshasa, Zaire, May 19. The first wave of 2e REP legionnaires boarding an aircraft to be transported to Kolwezi.
2 REP - Battle of Kolwezi - 1978 - Kolwezi - Entrance
Welcome to Kolwezi. An entrance to Kolwezi, Zaire, May 1978.
2 REP - Battle of Kolwezi - 1978 - Kolwezi - Map
Kolwezi. A plan of the city with its outskirts (yellow circles) and the strategic points seized by the 2e REP on May 19, 1978.

 

May 20, 1978 – Saturday

Second jump over Kolwezi
– 07:00 AM (07h00), the rest of the 2e REP jumped over Kolwezi
4th Company
Reconnaissance Platoon (Section d’Eclairage et de Reconnaissance, SER)
81 Mortar Platoon (Section de Mortiers 81, S81)
– the rest of the HQ
– 256 men together
– HQ + S81 + SER jumped over Drop Zone Alpha

– 4th Company jumped over Drop Zone Bravo
– a newly set up drop zone
– located east of the city
– close to the New Town of Kolwezi

 
Clearing of Kolwezi
– that day, clearing of Kolwezi continued

1st Company cleared the southern part of the Old Town
– several group of rebels were hidden there

2nd Company cleared the western part of the Old Town
– Lieutenant Raymond would be wouned

3rd Company cleared the New Town
– the unit would later move to Manika
– the outskirts situated south-west of the New Town
– used as the headquarters of remaining rebels

4th Company held its position east of Kolwezi
– in the afternoon, it would move to the north-west

SER + S81 cleared the northern part of the city
– then, they moved to Camp Forrest
– an old police camp north of the New Town

 
Belgian paratroopers to Kolwezi
– in the morning, Belgian paratroopers landed at Kolwezi
– part of their Operation Red Bean
– members of the 1st Parachute Battalion
– later also 3rd Parachute Battalion
– led by Colonel Depoorter
– having landed (not jumped) at the airport of Kolwezi
– they would support legionnaires in rescuing Europeans
– 2e REP’s HQ co-ordinated that mission
– its men handed Europeans over to Belgians

 
Battle of Metal Shaba
– 02:30 PM (14h30), a fierce battle at Metal Shaba
– the most violent action taking place at Kolwezi
– it occurred at Metal Shaba, the outskirts of the city
– situated about 3 miles (5 km) north of Kolwezi
– initially, 4th Company got involved
– attacked by over 100 well-equipped rebels hidden there
Staff Sergeant Daniel was immediatelly killed
– a deputy to the 2nd Platoon leader
– Lieutenant Dary, a future Chief of the Legion (2004-07)
– Corporal Prudence was seriously wounded

– 2nd Company + SER + S81 arrived to support the 4th Company
– a fierce battle started
– it took several hours
– in the evening, around 80 rebels were killed
– several rebel vehicles were destroyed
– many heavy weapons and firearms were captured

 
First calm night in Kolwezi
– that night, Kolwezi was without fighting
– the town was cleared
– only sporadic shots were heard

 

2 REP - Battle of Kolwezi - 1978 - Kolwezi - Jumping
Jumping over Kolwezi. The second wave of the 2e REP jumping over Kolwezi, May 20.

2 REP - Battle of Kolwezi - 1978 - Kolwezi - 4th Company - Drop Zone Bravo
Drop Zone Bravo. Legionnaires of the 4th Company after having landed east of Kolwezi, May 20.
2 REP - Battle of Kolwezi - 1978 - Kolwezi - Mortar Platoon - S81
Mortar Platoon – S81 of the 2e REP during the Battle of Kolwezi. The platoon jumped over the city on May 20, 1978.
2 REP - Battle of Kolwezi - 1978 - Kolwezi - Metal Shaba
Battle of Metal Shaba, Kolwezi, May 20. A very rare image showing the 4th Company legionnaires during the most violent action of the Battle of Kolwezi.

 

May 21, 1978 – Sunday

– that day, several skirmishes took place

– in the morning, two legionnaires were seriously wounded
– Corporal Pain + Legionnaire Marco

 
First 2e REP vehicles arrived at Kolwezi
– transported by the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy and C-141 Starlifters
– the regiment would be equipped with them quickly
– to make reconnaissance around the city
– new rebel hideouts were found

 

May 22, 1978 – Monday

– other 2e REP vehicles arrived at Kolwezi
– GMC camions

– a three-company task force was formed
– it moved to Kapata
– the outskirts of the city
– situated several miles south-west of Kolwezi
– a skirmish took place
– 8 rebels were killed

 
Europeans evacuated
– also that day, the last Europeans were evacuated from Kolwezi
– a joint operation of French and Belgian paratroopers
– it took place May 21-22
– the Europeans were moved to other Zairian cities

 
Battle of Kolwezi to be over
– that day, the battle officially ended
– however, the operations would continue

 

2 REP - Battle of Kolwezi - 1978 - Zaire - Vehicles
Vehicles in Zaire. The vehicles of the 2e REP arrived in Zaire between May 21-22.

2 REP - Battle of Kolwezi - 1978 - Kolwezi - Jeeps
Jeeps at Kolwezi. The first Jeeps of the 2e REP arrived at Kolwezi on May 21.
2 REP - Battle of Kolwezi - 1978 - Kolwezi - Patrolling
Patrolling around Kolwezi. The 2e REP legionnaires patrolling around Kolwezi with their vehicles (Jeeps and GMC trucks) having arrived between May 21-22, 1978.

 

May 23, 1978 – Tuesday

– that day, SER moved to Likasi
– a city located 93 miles (150 km) east of Kolwezi
– the legionnaires would guard Europeans living there

– in the afternoon, an operation at Luilu
– the outskirts of the city
– situated 8 miles (13 km) north-west of Kolwezi
– 1st Company was involved
– some 20 killed Europeans were found
– having been tortured and massacred

Skirmish of Luilu
– 4:30 PM (16h30), a skirmish took place
– when legionnaires finished their operation
– they were attacked by a small, hidden group of rebels
Legionnaire Clement was immediatelly killed
– the skirmish lasted about an hour
– all 5 rebels would be killed
Corporal Harte was fatally wounded
– he would died some time later

 

May 24, 1978 – Wednesday

– the legionnaires got a day off

 

May 25, 1978 – Thursday

– a new operation at Kapata
– the outskirts of the city
– situated several miles south-west of Kolwezi
– the operation was carried out by three companies
– several rebels would be killed
– 2 rebels would be imprisoned

Red Cross to arrive in Kolwezi
– that day, a Red Cross train arrived in Kolwezi
– with food supplies and medication

 

May 26, 1978 – Friday

– 2e REP moved to Luilu
– the outskirts of the city
– situated 8 miles (13 km) north-west of Kolwezi
– the regiment took a break there

– that day, another two Europeans (Belgians) were rescued

 

May 27, 1978 – Saturday

1st Company to leave Kolwezi
– that day, 1st Company left Kolwezi
– it moved to Lubumbashi
– for the company, the operation was over (for a while)

– around Kolwezi, the last reconnaissance took place
– conducted by two companies + S81

– that day, the Battle of Kolwezi was finally over

– however, Senior Corporal Alioui died
– a member of the 2e REP commandos
– most likely, he died accidentally

 
 

1978 Battle of Kolwezi: Aftermath

May 28, 1978 – Sunday

2e REP to leave Kolwezi
– 03:00 AM (03h00), the regiment left Kolwezi
– after a week of operations conducted there
– it moved to Lubumbashi
– in Kolwezi, only 3rd Company + S81 remained

 

June 3, 1978

– tens of newspaper reporters arrived in Kolwezi
– from around the world
– accompanied by Lt Colonel Erulin

 

June 4, 1978

– in Kolwezi, 3rd Company was replaced by 1st Company

 

June 6, 1978

– in Lubumbashi, a military parade
– in honor of the 2e REP

 

June 7, 1978

2e REP to leave Zaire for Corsica
– that day, 2e REP left Zaire and returned to Corsica
– 2e REP’s all GMC trucks and Jeeps remained in Zaire
– Moroccan troops (having replaced the legionnaires) would use them

 

June 16, 1978

1st Company to leave Zaire
– that day, 1st Company left Zaire and returned to Corsica
– it helped to guard Kolwezi until June 15

 

2 REP - Battle of Kolwezi - 1978 - Lubumbashi
Military parade at Lubumbashi, June 6, 1978. The 2e REP during a military parade in the second largest city of then Zaire, organized in honor of the regiment by then Zairian President Mobutu.

2 REP - Battle of Kolwezi - 1978 - Erulin - Mobutu
Erulin and Mobutu, June 6, 1978. The 2e REP’s commanding officer, Lt Colonel Erulin, with then Zairian President Mobutu.
2 REP - Battle of Kolwezi - 1978 - Bastia - Valery d'Estaing
2e REP welcomed by French President, Corsica, June 9, 1978. French President Valery d’Estaing (right) welcomed the 2e REP at Bastia, Corsica, after its arrival from Zaire. Because of the successful battle, the regiment became popular over the world and its action supported the prestige of France. Lt Colonel Erulin on the left.

 
 

1978 Battle of Kolwezi: Results

– more than 2,100 Europeans rescued

– about 170 Europeans were massacred by rebels
– more than 700 local inhabitants were also massacred by rebels

– some 250 rebels were killed
– over 160 rebels were captured

– a Belgian paratrooper was killed

 

2e REP’s losses during the Battle of Kolwezi

5 legionnaires of the regiment were killed:

2 REP - Battle of Kolwezi - 1978 - Norbert DANIEL
Norbert DANIEL

Staff Sergeant Norbert DANIEL
– born in France
– 29 years old
– killed on May 20, 1978
2 REP - Battle of Kolwezi - 1978 - Youcef ALIOUI
Youcef ALIOUI

Senior Corporal Youcef ALIOUI
– born in Algeria
– 27 years old
– a member of commandos (today’s GCP)
– he died on May 27, 1978
2 REP - Battle of Kolwezi - 1978 - Richard ARNOLD
Richard ARNOLD

Corporal Richard ARNOLD
– born in England
– born as Robert Guy Ashby
– 21 years old
– killed on May 19, 1978
2 REP - Battle of Kolwezi - 1978 - Paul HARTE
Paul HARTE

Corporal Paul HARTE
– born in France
– born as Jean Hembert
– 26 years old
– fatally wounded on May 23, 1978
– he died the next day
2 REP - Battle of Kolwezi - 1978 - Jules CLÉMENT
Jules CLÉMENT

Legionnaire Jules CLÉMENT
– born in France
– born as Jean Cesar
– 20 years old
– killed on May 23, 1978

 

20 men of the regiment were wounded:

– Lieutenant Raymond
– Sergeant Cabrol
– Senior Corporal Senekovic
– Corporal Bareda
– Corporal Courson
– Corporal Dallet
– Corporal Munoz
– Corporal Ovacic
– Corporal Pain
– Corporal Prudence
– Legionnaire Becker
– Legionnaire Demont
– Legionnaire Forestier
– Legionnaire Gilbert
– Legionnaire Jakovic
– Legionnaire Marco
– Legionnaire Rodriguez
– Legionnaire Seeger
– Legionnaire Soral
– Legionnaire Svoboda

 

Unmentioned French losses

– 6 French military personnel have been missed
– sent to Kolwezi on May 13, 1978
– only a notepad of one of those French soldiers was found in Kolwezi
– in the hospital, by 2e REP legionnaires
– these French soldiers have never been found
– there aren’t any known information about their destiny
– they are unmentioned in almost all documents

– Lieutenant Jacques Laissac
– Adjudant-Chef Pierre Van Nuvel
– Adjudant Jacques Bireau
– Adjudant Christian Cesario
– Adjudant Jacques Gomilla
– Adjudant Bernard Laurent

 
 

1978 Battle of Kolwezi: Images

– some additional images to document the battle

2 REP - Battle of Kolwezi - 1978 - Calvi - Paying Homage
Paying homage, Calvi, June 3, 1978. At the military base of the 2e REP, a ceremony to pay homage to the five killed legionnaires took place.
2 REP - Battle of Kolwezi - 1978 - Kolwezi - Legionnaire - M2 Browning
An M2 Browning operated by a 2e REP legionnaire during the Battle of Kolwezi, May 1978.
2 REP - Battle of Kolwezi - 1978 - Kolwezi - Legionnaires - Hotel Impala
Hotel Impala. 2e REP legionnaires sleeping at their HQ in Kolwezi, May 1978.
2 REP - Battle of Kolwezi - 1978 - Kolwezi - Legionnaires - Radio Post
A radio post of the 2e REP during the Battle of Kolwezi, May 1978.
2 REP - Battle of Kolwezi - 1978 - Kolwezi - Legionnaires - Wounded - Seeger - Gilbert
20 men of the 2e REP were wounded during the May 1978 Battle of Kolwezi. Between them, Legionnaires Seeger and Gilbert.
2 REP - Battle of Kolwezi - 1978 - Kolwezi - Legionnaires - Sablek - Sabljic
Then Sergeant Sablek carrying a rebel suspect during the Battle of Kolwezi. In 2018, Lt Colonel (ret) Zlatko Sabljic (of Croatian origin) serves as the head of Home of Legionnaire, a retirement home for Legion veterans. He spent 38 years in the Legion.
2 REP - Battle of Kolwezi - 1978 - Kolwezi - Captured Weapons
Over 1,000 firearms were captured during the Battle of Kolwezi, May 1978.
2 REP - Battle of Kolwezi - 1978 - Kolwezi - Legionnaire - Girl
A legionnaire of the 2e REP holding a rescued little girl, Kolwezi, May 1978.

 

A French TV report showing images from Solenzara (including 2e REP legionnaires) and Kolwezi, taken in late May 1978
An English TV report covering the events in Kolwezi, May 1978

 
 

———

Main information & images sources:
Képi blanc magazines (1978)
2e REP’s 2014 REP INFO bulletin
Memorial Gen Web (in French)
FSALE (in French)
Google Maps
Wikipedia.org

 
More from the history of the Foreign Legion:
1863 Battle of Camerone
1908 Forthassa Disaster
1932 Turenne Rail Accident
1954 Battle of Dien Bien Phu
1976 Loyada Hostage Rescue Mission
1982 Mont Garbi Accident

 

 
More from the history of the Foreign Legion’s paratroopers:
3rd Foreign Parachute Regiment
Parachute Company of 3e REI
1st Heavy Mortar Foreign Parachute Company
CERA – Foreign Airdrop Company

 

 

The page was updated on: May 19, 2018

 

↑ Back to Top