GOLE: 1976 Djibouti Helicopter Crash

In late May 1976, during a military exercise in the Horn of Africa, a helicopter transporting Foreign Legion elements crashed into the ground. Six legionnaires died. Others were badly burnt. At the time, the incident became the deadliest accident for the Legion since the end of the Algerian War in 1962. Despite being completely forgotten these days, even in France, this sad event and its victims should be remembered.

Djibouti - Foreign Legion etrangere - GOLE - Accident - 1976

 

1976 Djibouti Helicopter Crash: Prelude

The year of 1976 started well for the French Foreign Legion. In early February, its legionnaires took part in a successful, widely reported 1976 Loyada hostage rescue mission. The mission to rescue 31 French children kidnapped by Somali rebels in Djibouti, the capital of the then French Territory of Afars and Issas (TFAI, formerly French Somaliland). Today’s Djibouti (officially since 1977), a country located in the Horn of Africa, bordering Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia.

In support of the rescue mission in Djibouti, a Foreign Legion operational/intervention force was alerted – Foreign Legion Task Force (GOLE), commanded by Major Michel Guignon. Formed in 1971, the battalion-sized GOLE was based at Bonifacio, Corsica. Since 1972, the unit had been assigned to the re-activated 2e RE (2e REI now), also stationed in Corsica.

The GOLE left France on February 5, 1976. However, when the unit landed in the TFAI/Djibouti, the Loyada mission had already been over. But a new order was given – the GOLE had to stay in the country for next four months (Short Duration Mission, MCD), to strengthen the French military presence there. Its legionnaires (only HQ + 6th Company + 4th Squadron, 1er REC were deployed) would participate in military maneuvers and conduct border patrols alongside their comrades from the 13e DBLE, having been stationed permanently in Djibouti since 1962.

 
Africa - Djibouti - TFAI - Map

GOLE - Groupement opérationnel de la Légion étrangère - Djibouti - TFAI - 1976
A plaque of the GOLE, 2e RE marking the unit’s camp in then TFAI/Djibouti, 1976.
2e REI - 2 REI - Foreign Legion etrangere - Djibouti - TFAI - GOLE - 1976
GOLE, 2e RE and its vehicles in the Grand Bara desert (TFAI/Djibouti) in 1976.

 

GOLE’s 1976 Djibouti Helicopter Crash

On May 24, 1976, a firing exercise took place in southeastern part of the TFAI/Djibouti. The GOLE legionnaires (nicknamed GOLEmen) were involved. They would be transported by helicopters from Arta to a military shooting range at Holhol (sometimes also spelled as Holl Holl). Arta is a small town in the southeastern part of the country, about 20 miles (30 km) west of the capital. The HQ + 6th Company, GOLE were stationed there at the time. Holhol is situated some 15 miles (25 km) south of Arta.

The transport was conducted by three helicopters (SA 330B PUMA) from the French Army Light Aviation Detachment (DETALAT) of Djibouti, in the morning. The first rotation was with Mortar Platoon (HQ Company) on board. The three PUMAs left Arta around 06.45 AM (06h45) and returned thirty minutes later, without problems. The second rotation moved to HolHol at 07.15 AM, with the first part of the 6th Company on board.

The third (and most likely the final) rotation took the 3rd Platoon, 6th Company. The three PUMAs left Arta around 07.45 AM (07h45). When they were approaching Holhol, about 1,25 mile (2 km) distant, an accident happened. The second PUMA of the formation, with three crew members and twelve legionnaires on board, crashed for unknown reasons into the Djadjaboka thalweg and burst into flames. The pilot and six legionnaires were thrown out of the helicopter. However, two crew members and six legionnaires died in the fire. Including Staff Sergeant Smajil Zolic, platoon sergeant, the deputy to a platoon leader.

Between the survivors, four badly burnt legionnaires. They were rescued and transported to France a few hours later, to be hospitalized in Paris. By the way, there aren’t any other information concerning the destiny of these badly burnt legionnaires sent to the hospital.

 

2e REI - 2 REI - Foreign Legion etrangere - Djibouti - TFAI - GOLE - Accident - 1976 - Map
A map of the accident, which took place close to Holhol, TFAI/Djibouti on May 24, 1976.

2e REI - 2 REI - Foreign Legion etrangere - Djibouti - TFAI - GOLE - Helicopter - PUMA - 1976 - Map
A PUMA helicopter and GOLE legionnaires during an exercise, TFAI/Djibouti, 1976.

 

1976 Djibouti Helicopter Crash: Casualties

6 killed legionnaires of the 3rd Platoon, 6th Company, GOLE:

  • Staff Sergeant Smajil ZOLIC – platoon sergeant
  • Senior Corporal Julien COLETT
  • Legionnaire Alois BRUNNER
  • Legionnaire Joseph GALIESER
  • Legionnaire Pierre GAUMONT
  • Legionnaire René LARIER

 
4 badly burnt legionnaires of the 3rd Platoon, 6th Company, GOLE:

  • Legionnaire Ruddy BRUNNER – a brother of killed Alois Brunner
  • Legionnaire CHARBONNEL
  • Legionnaire ROAGNA
  • Legionnaire ZIEGLER

 
2 killed crew members of the DETALAT crashed helicopter:

  • Adjudant Jean-Louis DUBOST
  • Maréchal des logis chef Christian BAIXAS

 

Foreign Legion etrangere - Djibouti - TFAI - GOLE - 1976 - Smajil Zolic
Staff Sergeant Smajil Zolic. Born in Yugoslavia, in the Foreign Legion since 1964. As a former member of the 2e REP, he fought in Chad in 1969-70. A military pentathlon world champion, father of three children. He died on May 24, 1976.

2e REI - 2 REI - Foreign Legion etrangere - Djibouti - TFAI - GOLE - 1976 - Victims - Killed Legionnaires
Six killed GOLE legionnaires. From left to right: Smajil Zolic (1), Julien Colett (2), Alois Brunner (3), Pierre Gaumont (4), René Larier (5) and Joseph Galieser (6), the youngest member of the GOLE at the time. By the way, Brunner, Larier and Galieser just finished their four-month basic instruction before joining the GOLE and deploying to the TFAI/Djibouti…
2e REI - 2 REI - Foreign Legion etrangere - Djibouti - TFAI - GOLE - Accident - Paying Homage - 1976
Paying homage to the killed legionnaires at the military cemetery of Djibouti, May 26, 1976.

 

1976 Djibouti Helicopter Crash: Conclusion

In the accident, the then Legion suffered its worst losses in a single incident since the end of the Algerian War (1962). Nevertheless, the event would be completely forgotten during the next decades. On the internet, even in 2018, there wasn’t any French article concerning the accident, except for a 2016 forum comment translating the original version of this page.

There should be two reasons. Six years later, another air accident killing legionnaires occurred in Djibouti: 1982 Mont Garbi Accident. This is a well-known event, fully covered by the media, commemorated annually. The second reason could be a hidden background with a potential trace of Somali insurgents. Who knows…

In any case, these two air accidents + the 2016 Avalanche accident in the Alps have remained the deadliest incidents for the Foreign Legion which occurred since the end of the Algerian conflict in 1962.

For the GOLE itself, the operation in the TFAI/Djibouti was the only “rapid intervention” to take part in. The unit was dissolved in July 1977 and its three combat companies (5th + 6th + 7th) consolidated directly with the 2e RE. Six years later, in late 1983, the regiment left Corsica for France. There, the companies became the 1st + 2nd + 3rd Company, 2e REI in July 1984.

 

2e RE - 2 RE - GOLE - Groupement opérationnel de la Légion étrangère - 6e compagnie - 6th Company - 1975
6th Company, GOLE. The insignia of the unit (2nd Company, 2e REI today). Designed in Corsica in 1975, by Captain Tresti.

2e REI - 2 REI - Foreign Legion etrangere - Djibouti - TFAI - GOLE - Fanion - Guignon - 1976
A rare image showing the GOLE’s commander (left) + its fanion in the TFAI/Djibouti in 1976. Major Michel Guignon, then commanding officer (1975-77) of the GOLE. In the Legion since 1956, a platoon leader with the famous 1er REP (1958-61). Before promoting to General, he would also command the 2e REP (1980-82). As an unbelievable quirk of fate, both most tragic air accidents of the post-1962 Legion occurred in Djibouti and, moreover, under his command (GOLE 1976 + 2e REP 1982)… The GOLE’s fanion is held by Adjudant-chef Zeltinger (right), a German legionnaire who jumped as a volunteer over Dien Bien Phu in April 1954.
GOLE - Accident - TFAI - Djibouti - 1976 - Memorial Plaque - Bonifacio
The memorial plaque of the 1976 helicopter crash inside the Legion’s cemetery at Bonifacio, Corsica (GOLE’s garrison 1971-77).

 
 

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Main information & images sources:
Képi blanc magazines (1976)
Mémorial GenWeb
Aéorostèles
Google Maps

 
Other Foreign Legion sad accidents:
2016 Avalanche accident in the Alps
1982 Mont Garbi accident
1932 Turenne Rail Accident
1908 Forthassa Disaster

 

 

The page was updated on: May 23, 2018

 

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