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 to the ground. Six legionnaires died immediately; another two died later. Others were badly wounded. At the time, this was the deadliest accident for the Legion since the end of the Algerian War in 1962. Although considerably forgotten these days, even in France, this sad event and its victims should be remembered.

La version française de cet article: Crash d’hélicoptère à Djibouti en mai 1976

 
Djibouti - Foreign Legion - GOLE - Accident - 1976

 

1976 Djibouti Helicopter Crash: Introduction

The year of 1976 started well for the French Foreign Legion. In early February, its legionnaires took part in the successful, broadly reported 1976 Loyada hostage rescue mission. This was a 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). Since 1977, the country has been called Djibouti. It is located in the Horn of Africa and borders Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia.

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

The GOLE left France on February 5, 1976. In fact, only HQ, 6th Company, and 4th Squadron, 1er REC were deployed. When the units landed in the TFAI/Djibouti, the Loyada mission was already over. Nevertheless, a new order was given: the GOLE had to stay in the country for the next four months (a so-called Short Duration Mission, MCD), to strengthen the French military presence in the region. The GOLE legionnaires (nicknamed GOLEmen) would participate in military maneuvers and conduct border patrols alongside their comrades from the 13e DBLE, a unit permanently stationed in Djibouti since 1962.

 
Africa - Djibouti - TFAI - Map

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

 

GOLE’s 1976 Djibouti Helicopter Crash

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

The transport was conducted in the morning by three helicopters (SA 330B PUMA) from the French Army Light Aviation Detachment (DETALAT) of Djibouti. The first rotation had the Mortar Platoon (HQ Company) on board. The Pumas left Arta around 7:15 a.m. (07:15) and returned about half an hour later, without problems.

The second rotation took the 3rd Platoon, 6th Company. The three Pumas left Arta around 7:45 a.m. (07:45).

After the previous normal flight to the exercise site, the Pumas had to make a tactical flight of several miles along the Djadjaboka thalweg, a dry riverbed that contains water only when heavy rain occurs. Twelve minutes later, at 7:57 a.m., when they were approaching Holhol, about 1.25 miles (2 km) away, an accident occurred. The second Puma of the formation, with three crew members and twelve legionnaires on board, crashed into the thalweg and burst into flames. The investigation will show that the lift of the air was no longer sufficient at the bottom of the thalweg at this early morning hour. The rear rotor of the Puma hit a clump of kekés (shrubs) and smashed.

The pilot and several legionnaires were thrown out of the helicopter. A legionnaire jumped out of the craft before the crash. Despite his wounds, he then pulled out three of his half-burnt comrades. Unfortunately, two crew members and six legionnaires died in the fire, including Staff Sergeant Smajil Zolic. He served as platoon sergeant, the deputy to a platoon leader.

Among the survivors were four badly wounded legionnaires. They were rescued and transported to France a few hours later, to be hospitalized in Paris.

UPDATE April 2019: Shortly after their arrival to the military hospital in Paris, two badly wounded legionnaires died from their injuries. The other two legionnaires survived and, after having recovered, retired to Puyloubier, the Foreign Legion’s home for disabled veterans located near Aubagne, the Legion’s HQ in southern France.[1]

1. Evidence of General Vittorio Tresti, the then 6th Company's commander, given in late March 2019 and provided to the Foreign Legion Info website by Roberto Castiglioni.

 

2e REI - 2 REI - Foreign Legion - Djibouti - TFAI - GOLE - Accident - Helicopter Crash - 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 - Djibouti - TFAI - GOLE - Helicopter - PUMA - 1976
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 wounded legionnaires of the 3rd Platoon, 6th Company, GOLE:

  • Legionnaire Ruddy BRUNNER (from Germany)
  • Legionnaire CHARBONNEL (from Belgium)
  • Legionnaire ROAGNA (from Spain)
  • Legionnaire ZIEGLER (from Austria)

UPDATE April 2019: Two of these badly wounded legionnaires died later. Their identity is unknown, however.

 
2 killed crew members of the DETALAT crashed helicopter:

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

 

Foreign Legion - GOLE - 1976 - Smajil Zolic
Staff Sergeant Smajil Zolic. Born in Yugoslavia and part of the Legion since 1964. A former member of the 2e REP, he fought in Chad from 1969 to 1970. A military pentathlon world champion and father of three, he died in the crash on May 24, 1976. Today, his name is seen on the Memorial Wall inside the 2e REP’s Camp Raffalli.

Foreign Legion - 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… The identities of the two legionnaires who died from their injuries are unknown.
Foreign Legion - 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 almost forgotten over the following decades. Yet in 2018, there was not a single French text on the internet that dealt with this sad event, except for a 2016 forum comment translating the original version of this article.

There is a possible reason for this. Six years later, another air accident killing legionnaires occurred in Djibouti: the 1982 Mont Garbi Accident. This is a well-known event, fully covered by the media and commemorated annually. It may have overshadowed the 1976 crash.

In any case, these two air accidents remain the Foreign Legion’s deadliest events to occur since the end of the Algerian conflict in 1962.

The operation in the TFAI/Djibouti was the only “rapid intervention” the GOLE partook in. The unit was dissolved in July 1977 and its three combat companies (5th, 6th, and 7th) consolidated directly with the 2e RE. In late 1983, the regiment left Corsica for mainland France. There, in July 1984, the three companies became the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Companies, 2e REI.

 

2e RE - 2 RE - GOLE - Groupement opérationnel - 6th Company - 1975 - badge
6th Company, GOLE. The badge 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 Major Michel Guignon (on the left), the then commanding officer of the GOLE (1975-1977), and the unit’s fanion in the TFAI/Djibouti in 1976. Major Guignon served in the Legion since 1956. He was a platoon leader with the famous 1er REP (1958-1961). Before being promoted to General, he would also command the 2e REP (1980-1982). By an unbelievable quirk of fate, the two most tragic air accidents of the post-1962 Legion occurred in Djibouti and, moreover, under his command (GOLE 1976 and 2e REP 1982)… The GOLE’s fanion is held by Adjudant-chef Zeltinger, a German legionnaire who voluntarily jumped over Dien Bien Phu in April 1954.
GOLE - Accident - TFAI - Djibouti - 1976 - Memorial Stone - Bonifacio - 1979
A rare image of the original memorial stone inside the Legion’s cemetery of Bonifacio. The picture was taken in 1979, by Roberto Castiglioni, and published with his kind permission.
GOLE - Accident - TFAI - Djibouti - 1976 - Memorial Stone - Bonifacio - 1989
A legionnaire of the 1er REC repairs the original memorial stone dedicated to the tragedy, during a complete renovation of the Legion cemetery in Bonifacio, October-November 1989.
GOLE - Accident - TFAI - Djibouti - 1976 - Memorial Plaque - Bonifacio
The current memorial plaque of the 1976 helicopter crash inside the Legion’s cemetery at Bonifacio, Corsica (GOLE’s garrison from 1971 to 1977). The plaque was made and placed at the cemetery probably around 2010.
GOLE - Accident - TFAI - Djibouti - 1976 - Memorial Stone - Bonifacio - 2013
The original memorial stone inside the Legion’s cemetery of Bonifacio, in September 2013. The picture was taken and provided to the Foreign Legion Info site by Roberto Castiglioni.

 
 
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Special thanks:
I highly appreciate Roberto Castiglioni and his help with this article.
Also, many thanks to General Vittorio Tresti.

 
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Main information & images sources:
Képi blanc magazines (1976)
Colonel Jean-Jacques Noirot: A tous les oubliés (ASAF, November 2019)
Mémorial GenWeb
Aéorostèles
Google Maps

 
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More from the Foreign Legion’s history:
1863 Battle of Camerone
1908 Forthassa Disaster
Foreign Legion in the Balkans: 1915-1919
1932 Turenne Rail Accident
1954 Battle of Dien Bien Phu
1976 Loyada Hostage Rescue Mission
1982 Mont Garbi Accident

 

The page was updated on: May 23, 2021

 

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