Battle of Kolwezi

The Battle of Kolwezi (Operation Leopard or, in France, Operation Bonite) was an airborne operation launched in May 1978 to rescue over 2,000 European hostages captured and held by Tigers, the Katangese rebels from Congolese National Liberation Front (FNLC) in the city of Kolwezi, an important mining center in the Katanga province of southern Zaire (the Democratic Republic of the Congo now), the country located in Central Africa. 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 Second War of Shaba (or Shaba II) between Zaire and FNLC. Shaba was the title of Katanga province at that time.

On May 13, 1978, around 1,500 Katangese rebels from FNLC invaded the city of Kolwezi. They took over 2,000 Europeans (mostly of French and Belgian origin) as hostages. Rebels started to loot the city, to rape girls and women and to kill local residents and captured Europeans. The government of Zaire asked Belgium, France, Morocco and the United States to restore order.

Battle of Kolwezi - Operation Leopard - Operation Bonite

 

2e REP – Operation Leopard – Operation Bonite – Kolwezi 1978

May 17 – in Corsica, 2e REP, under the command of Lt Col Philippe Erulin was put on alert at 10h00 (10:00 AM)

May 17 – 18 – 2e REP left Corsica and landed in Africa (Abidjan, Ivory Coast)

May 19 – 2e REP landed in Kinshasa (the capital of Zaire) at 02h30 (2:30 AM)

    11h00 / 11:00 AM – a part of the HQ + 1st + 2nd + 3rd Company boarded the five C-190 Hercules planes of the U.S. Air Force + one French Transall C-160 plane

    14h30 / 02:30 PM – the first wave of legionnaires (450 men) jumped over Kolwezi and took the orders:

      1st Company was sent to the Jean XXIII school in the south of the old town of Kolwezi
      2nd Company was sent to liberate the European hostages held in the hospital
      3rd Company was sent to get control of the main bridge, the Impala hotel and a post office
      HQ Company moved with the 3rd Company to the Impala hotel to install itself there to co-ordinate the operation

    18h00 / 06:00 PM – after the fights, all posts are occupied and the Europeans liberated

    – in the evening, the second part of the regiment moved from Kinshasa to Lubumbashi, the second largest city in the country (300km south-east of Kolwezi)
    – the second part was composed of:
    4th Company
    Reconnaissance Platoon (Section d’Eclairage et de Reconnaissance, SER)
    81 Mortar Platoon (Section de Mortiers 81, S81)
    – the rest of the HQ Company

    – during the night of May 19, the new fights with rebels burst out in Kolwezi again

    – in Corsica, at the Solenzara airport, during the night of May 19 (and during the day of May 20), a Lockheed C-5 Galaxy of USAF was boarded by 2e REP’s vehicles (AML 60/90, Range Rover/Land Rover etc.), to be directly brought to Lubumbashi on May 20 (the aircraft then continued the flights in, to and out of Libreville, Gabon to support the 2nd REP with re-supply into Kinshasa and Lubumbashi, till May 24) [1]

May 20 – transported from Lubumbashi, the second wave of the 2e REP jumped over Kolwezi at 05h00 (05:00 AM)

SER + S81 + rest of the HQ Company used the same drop zone as the first wave
4th Company dropped over the eastern part of Kolwezi/ul>

– in the morning, paratroopers from the Belgian Armed Forces landed at the airport of Kolwezi

– the rest of 2e REP continued its mission:

    – 1st Company was cleaning the south of the old town
    – 2nd Company was cleaning the west of the old town
    – 3rd Company was sent to the new town in the east of the city
    – SER and S81 were sent to the north-east of the city
    – HQ Company, once being regrouped, helped with passing the liberated Europeans to the Belgian troops based at the airport

– one legionnaire of the 3rd Company was killed near the Manika district

15h00 / 03:00 PM – 4th Company was heavily attacked in the nord-east of the city, Sergent-Chef Daniel was killed

– 2nd Company, SER and S81 were sent to support the 4th Company; 80 rebels were killed

– while returning back, SER and S81 were attacked by rebels again
– legionnaires returned fire with mortars and destroyed cars and tanks of rebels

May 21-22 – 2e REP was regrouped to be looking for rebel hideouts

May 2316h30 – while searching rebels in northwestern Kolwezi, the 1st Company was attacked

– one legionnaire is immediately killed; Caporal Harte was seriously wounded; he will die a few days later

May 24 – legionnaires take a short break

May 25 – several rebels were killed in the morning

May 26 – another two Europeans were rescued

May 27 – 3rd Company + S81 stayed in Kolwezi to control the city

– the rest of the 2e REP was transported to Lubumbashi

June 4 – 2e REP returned to its home base in Calvi, Corsica

 

Aftermath

– more than 2,100 Europeans rescued

– about 160 Europeans and 600 local inhabitants were massacred by rebels

– 247 rebels killed, 163 captured

– 25 legionnaires injured

– 5 legionnaires were killed:

    Sergent-chef DANIEL
    Caporal-chef ALLIOUI
    Caporal ARNOLD
    Caporal HARTE
    Legionnaire CLÉMENT

 

2e REP at the Solenzara airport in Corsica before departure to Kolwezi
2e REP at the Solenzara airport in Corsica before departure to Kolwezi (May 18, 1978)
© Photo credit: Ecpad.fr
Welcome to Kolwezi
Welcome to Kolwezi; © Photo credit: Ecpad.fr
2e REP at the Impala hotel in Kolwezi
2e REP at the Impala hotel in Kolwezi; © Photo credit: Ecpad.fr
2e REP is patrolling around the city of Kolwezi
2e REP is patrolling around the city of Kolwezi; © Photo credit: Ecpad.fr
S81 of the 2e REP in action
S81 of the 2e REP in action; © Photo credit: Ecpad.fr
Weapons of rebels collected by 2e REP
Weapons of rebels collected by 2e REP; © Photo credit: 2e REP
2 REP - GMC - Diables Verts - Kolwezi 1978
Green Devils. An expression inscribed on a GMC of 2e REP patrolling near Kolwezi
2 REP - Parade - Kolwezi 1978
2e REP parading in Kolwezi, before its return to Corsica
Colonel Philippe Erulin, head of the 2e REP in Kolwezi
Lieutenant-colonel Philippe Erulin, the commanding officer of 2e REP and the commander of the operation in Kolwezi, which became the French hero at that time, speaking with Mobutu Seko, the president of Zaire, in May 1978. Next year, in September 1979, colonel Erulin will die due to an artery aneurysm. © Photo credit: The Erulin family

 

Images from Kolwezi on May 22-23, 1978 (a French TV report)

 

Note:
1. An information provided by John “Jack” Legere (Sergeant, 3rd Military Airlift Squadron at the time of the operation), a crewmember of the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy aircraft


 

Main information source:
Képi blanc magazine (1978)

More images + more detailed information about the Battle of Kolwezi:
CHMP Forum (in French)
Para Legion (in French)

 

 

The page was updated on: May 18, 2016

 

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