Legionnaires paratroopers in WWII

Officially, the first airborne legionnaire unit – Cie Para – appeared during the First Indochina War in April 1948. After a year of operations in the mountains of North Vietnam, it merged with the 1er BEP, another airborne unit of the Foreign Legion that had been formed in July 1948 in Algeria (future 1er REP). However, the story of the very first legionnaires paratroopers began much earlier: in North Africa during the Second World War.

La version française de cet article:
Legionnaires parachutistes pendant la Seconde Guerre mondiale

 
Legionnaires paratroopers in WWII - Second World War - Foreign Legion - History

 

Introduction

In September 1939, England and France declared war on Germany. Nevertheless, after an overwhelming German offensive from May-June 1940, the French authorities were forced to sign an armistice and cease all military operations against the Germans. Although partially occupied by enemy troops, the rest of Metropolitan France and its overseas colonies continued to live under the administration of the new French government based in the town of Vichy (the so-called Vichy France).

But England, and then the United States, wanted to rid Europe of Hitler. The two countries decided to use French North Africa (Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia) as their starting point for the liberation of Europe, and invaded it in November 1942 (Operation Torch). The French command there, along with its forces including the Foreign Legion, joined the Allies and contributed significantly to the defeat of the Germans and Italians occupying Tunisia. Thereafter, the Allies started to reorganize the French forces in North Africa to be able to participate in future operations in Europe. This is when the new airborne units appeared.

 
 

Stand up volunteers, chasseurs and legionnaires…

Among them, the very first was the Bataillon de Choc (Shock Battalion). Consisting only of volunteers, this commando unit would have been able to be projected behind enemy lines for harassment and sabotage missions, or to support and train the local Resistance. It was based on the model of the British SAS (Special Air Service, a special force founded in 1941).

The Bataillon de Choc was created in Algeria in late May 1943, with the autorization of General Henri Giraud, then commander-in-chief of French troops in North Africa. A note from the recruitment service to seek volunteers was sent to all units under his command, including the regiments of the Foreign Legion. Many volunteers signed up, despite the reluctance of some commanding officers, who already faced a serious shortage of troops after the Tunisia campaign.

So, still in May 1943, some forty legionnaires – officers, non-commissioned officers and enlisted men – joined the battalion based in Staoueli, a commune located west of Algiers, the capital of Algeria. Most of them came from Morocco, mainly from the mounted and motorized units of the 3e REI. Some of these volunteers were transferred by formal means, others decided without hesitation to leave their original unit illegally and take part in a new adventure. However, this was not a problem since the formal administrative procedures were settled very quickly after they arrived at their new battalion.

In addition to those from the Foreign Legion and the rest of the French Army of Africa, the volunteers also came from units demobilized in 1940. Among them were officers and soldiers who had escaped from France or from prison camps. All of them were united by their will to liberate France.

The legionnaires were among the first to be assigned to this new elite unit and distributed among the three companies. The foundation and command of the Bataillon de Choc was entrusted to Major Fernand Gambiez, one of those who escaped France to join the newly formed French Army. He was a former officer of the Foreign Legion, with whom he had served in Morocco between 1927 and 1935. Major Gambiez got a completely free hand for the organization of the unit, its cadres, training, equipment, and military doctrine.

Mixed with volunteers from other army branches, the legionnaires contributed a great deal to the formation of the “Choc” which defined itself by the formula: “Power of the Legion, lightness of the chasseur, chic of the cavalryman.”

The weaponry they carried was light: Sten machine guns, pistols, knives, grenades, and rifles. Their uniform was American. All the volunteers of the battalion were trained by British and American specialists. The commando techniques were based on new methods developed by the Allied special forces. However, due to serious injuries during parachute landings, the number of training jumps was initially limited to four.

 

Lieutenant Colonel Fernand Gambiez - Bataillon de Choc - 1944
Lieutenant Colonel Fernand Gambiez, head of the Bataillon de Choc, in 1944. He served many years with the Legion in Morocco. His son, a young officer with the 3e REI, would be killed at Dien Bien Phu.

 

After having participated brilliantly in the liberation of Corsica (the first French department to be liberated), which occurred in September 1943, the battalion was stationed in the citadel of Calvi. There the unit continued its commando training, supervised by Allied specialists (such as Captain Peter Neale of the British commandos). Even parachute jumps were not neglected.

Among the officers of the Battalion at the time was Captain Jacques Lefort, commander of the 2nd Company. He spent the first five years of his military career in the Legion – in Algeria, the Sahara, Morocco, and Norway. After serving as commanding officer of the Battalion from 1944-1945, he took over the well-known 2e REP in 1958, and eventually became the Inspector General of the Foreign Legion (the head of the institution).

Part of the legionnaire contingent of this elite battalion formed the “Legion Platoon,” later redesignated as the “Experimental Platoon”. This elite commando platoon was responsible for implementing, applying and verifying the use of new combat methods. Some of these commandos took part in sabotage operations carried out on the Italian coast during the winter of 1943-1944.

In June 1944, as part of the Italian campaign, General de Lattre de Tassigny‘s French “B” Army was given the mission of seizing Elba Island (Operation Brassard), located between Corsica and Italy, to prevent the Germans using the island as a forward outpost. The most dangerous part of the operation was assigned to the Bataillon de Choc: to attack the enemy’s coastal artillery, in particular the batteries of Campo and Enfola. This was a very delicate mission, on which the success of the entire operation largely depended.

The Battalion, divided into seven detachments in inflatable rubber boats, landed on June 17, 1944 at 1:00 a.m., three hours before the main landing of the French troops. Detachment No. 7 consisted of the Experimental Platoon (the platoon of legionnaires), supported by a platoon of young Corsican volunteers from the 4th Company.

The commando legionnaires, under Second Lieutenant Saunier, Warrant Officer Lévèque and Senior Corporal Mattei, had to destroy the four large guns of the German artillery battery. These were 152 mm M1937 (ML-20) howitzer guns from the Soviet Army, captured and reused by the Wehrmacht. The battery was located on the Enfola peninsula, on the north side of Elba. In the action, three 152 mm guns, two 88 mm guns and two 20 mm guns were destroyed by the Detachment. The Experimental Platoon itself destroyed three 152 mm guns with explosives and completely neutralized the fourth. Among the enemy there were 17 dead, including 2 officers, and many wounded.

The mission was accomplished and in two days, the island of Elba was liberated. Unfortunately, despite their essential contribution to the success of the entire operation, the Legion platoon was practically annihilated.

However, a small number of former legionnaires would still serve with the battalion until the end of the war in 1945.

The Bataillon de Choc was dissolved in Calvi in 1963, twenty years after the creation. Their camp was handed over to another airborne unit, much more familiar to our readers: the 2e REP. But that is another story… What has survived until the present is the battalion’s official marching song, with a verse making an important reference to the little-known origins of this unit:

“Stand up volunteers, chasseurs and legionnaires, parachutes are ready for the adventure.”

 

Bataillon de Choc - Corsica - Ajaccio - 1943
The Bataillon de Choc parade in Corsica, 1943. Corsica became the very first French department to be liberated by the Allies.

Bataillon de Choc - Calvi - Camp Fiume Secco - 1963
The camp of the Bataillon de Choc at Calvi, Corsica, in 1963. In early 1964, first legionnaires of the 2e REP were based there. The whole regiment moved from Algeria to Calvi in 1967. Today, the camp is known as Camp Raffalli. Note the battalion’s insignia.
Bataillon de Choc - beret badge - 1944
Beret badge of the Bataillon de Choc, created in 1945.

 
 

Parachute training in China in 1945

It was not until 1945 that the embryo of a purely legionnaire parachute formation was created, but it had a very brief existence. The idea was born in the Far East, at the camp of Tsao Pa, in the southwestern part of China. There, the Americans suggested the creation of a parachute unit consisting of survivors of the 5e REI, who had retreated from Vietnam to China after the hard fighting against the Japanese from March–May of the same year.

As is usually the case within the Legion, there was no shortage of volunteers; they formed a platoon under Lieutenant Charles Chenel, future colonel of the 2e REP in Algeria. The parachute training was carried out by a veteran with 10 years of service, Warrant Officer Pyl, who would command a mortar group of the 1er BEP three years later; he was assisted by Staff Sergeant Rest. But the war with Japan came to an end just as the platoon was about to make training jumps at the air base in Kunming, the capital of the region. Thus the very first Foreign Legion paratrooper unit would never jump, and the para-volunteers of the Provisional Battalion, 5e REI (BM 5) were never awarded parachute wings…

 
 

Legionnaire of the SAS

Introduction

It should be noted that this entire article on the very first legionnaires-paratroopers was initiated by Dr. David Bruce, a Medical Officer (Group Captain) who retired after 36 years of service with the Royal Air Force (RAF). He contacted me and asked me to cooperate in uncovering the details about his grandfather’s military career. In 1943, the latter was among the 3e REI legionnaires who volunteered for an adventure in a newly constituted parachute commando unit. But the most interesting thing is that David‘s grandfather, as well as his fellow legionnaires, did not end up in the Bataillon de Choc; they became members of the British Special Air Service, better known as the SAS.

 

Foreign Legion 1938-1943

But let’s start from the beginning. Dr. David Bruce‘s maternal grandfather, Wladislas “Lucien” Cieslak, was born in June 1917 in Popowo, a small village in Poland. In 1924, his family left the country and settled in France. Naturalized French in 1938, Lucien decided to join the Foreign Legion in November of the same year. He was then 21 years old. Through Marseille, he was immediately sent to North Africa, to spend his training in Algeria, within the DCRE. Then, the young legionnaire was assigned to the 1st Foreign Regiment.

In September 1939, the sad events in Europe interrupted the period of peace. The mobilization order arrived. Within the regiments of the Legion in North Africa, volunteer detachments were formed to move to Metropolitan France and create the nucleus of two new regiments (11e REI and 12e REI) there. Lucien was one of these volunteers and joined the 11e Etranger. With the 2nd Battalion, he participated in the 1940 Battle of France. On June 17, while manning a 25mm Hotchkiss anti-tank gun, he distinguished himself at Void by stopping an enemy motorized column and damaging several of its vehicles, including a tank. For this action, he was mentioned in dispatches at the brigade level.

After the armistice, surrounded by the Germans, Lucien was taken prisoner along with the majority of his regiment. Interned in the Verdun camp, he escaped in January 1941 and rejoined the 1er REI in Algeria. A year later, in January 1942, he was assigned to the 3e REI stationed in Morocco. Shortly afterward, Lucien was promoted to 1st class.

In November, the Allied landings took place in North Africa and reversed the political situation. The French troops based there resumed the fight against the Germans; thus, the 3e REI battalions would face Axis forces in Tunisia. The campaign was successfully completed in May 1943.

At the same time, recruiters began to seek volunteers among the French troops – including the legionnaires – for new parachute commando units. As we know, many of those who heard the call were assigned to the Bataillon de Choc. But this was not the case for Lucien. He was contacted by a certain Captain Lee of the British SAS. In reality, it was Raymond Couraud, a former French legionnaire of the 3e REI and the 13e DBLE in Morocco and Norway, who had been enlisted in 1938 at the age of 18. Couraud, alias Captain Lee, managed to join England and the Free French Forces in 1941 and, a few months later, to become a commando officer. He had been a British citizen for a few weeks and was now commander of the French Squadron of the 2nd SAS Regiment (2 SAS).

 

Wladislas Cieslak - legionnaire - 1939
Young legionnaire Wladislas “Lucien” Cieslak with the 1st Foreign Regiment in 1939.

 

French Squadron of the 2 SAS

The French Squadron (equivalent to a company) of the 2 SAS was formed in March 1943, with about fifty French commandos transferred from the original French Squadron of the inactivated 1 SAS. It was thus the only French unit of the British SAS at the time, the force itself represented only by this 2 SAS. This “regiment” (in fact, a battalion) was commanded by William “Bill” Stirling, brother of David Stirling, founder of the SAS.

After the Tunisian campaign, Lucien and about 12 other legionnaires of the 3e REI volunteered for Captain Lee‘s squadron. Not long afterward, they were sent to Philippeville in Algeria, the then-headquarters of the SAS in North Africa (and later, during the Algerian war, the garrison of the 2e REP). There, Lucien and his comrades underwent training in this special force.

The SAS squadron was usually formed of 8 “sticks”, small combat units composed of 3 to 10 men, depending on the available manpower. Each stick would usually have been commanded by an officer, but at that time, it was non-commissioned officers who were mostly in charge of these small groups. Their training was done in isolation, because on a mission the stick operated with its own resources and, in principle, without any outside help or assistance.

Having finished his training, Lucien was sent to take part in the Italian campaign, between September and December 1943. There, the 2 SAS carried out separate operations behind enemy lines in the Termoli sector, where its commandos destroyed railroads, blew up bridges and blocked the movement of German forces.

At the end of 1943, in view of the Normandy landings and the Liberation of France, as well as the rest of Europe, the Allied command decided to increase the strength of the Special Air Service to that of a brigade made up of four “regiments”. Two regiments of the new brigade were to remain British (the 1st and 2nd SAS), while two others were to be French (the 3rd and 4th SAS). Each regiment was made up of about forty ten-man sticks. Later, a 5th Belgian SAS would be integrated into the Brigade. By the way, the latter has also a small number of former legionnaires among its ranks, coming from the 6e REI after the 1941 Syria-Lebanon campaign.

In early April 1944, the French Squadron of the 2 SAS was transferred, along with Lucien, from Algeria to England to be reorganized there. At the same time, for administrative reasons, Lucien was assigned to the French 3 SAS (in fact, the 3e Régiment de chasseurs parachutistes under Major Château-Jobert known as “Conan”). However, Lucien still remained detached to the British 2 SAS. At RAF Ringway, a training center for airborne troops located near Manchester, he underwent a week-long parachute training course. On April 17, he was officially qualified as a paratrooper and awarded his parachute wings. For the record, according to the official report, about 160 men of 13 different nationalities (!) participated in the same course.

 

Wladislas Cieslak - SAS - Special Air Service - 1944
Wladislas “Lucien” Cieslak as a member of the 2nd SAS Regiment (2 SAS), in 1944.

 

Once reorganized, the SAS would take part in the Liberation of France from June 1944 onward. Their main role was to parachute in small groups of commandos to the German army’s rear, where they would execute sabotage and destruction missions, as well as reconnaissance and harassment actions against the enemy.

Lucien left for France at the beginning of August 1944, to take part in Operation Dunhill. Five sticks, totalling about 60 men, were to disrupt German activity in advance of the American breakout from Normandy. Four of the sticks were relieved within twenty-four hours. The fifth stick would report on German movements and secure about 200 Allied airmen before they linked up with the Americans three weeks later. Lucien made part of this fifth stick. They were dropped into the Nantes area. A week later, on August 8, he was surveying a German-occupied village when he was met by enemy fire. After having responded with his machine gun, he was seriously wounded by a 37 mm shell. Initially, Lucien was brought to the hospital of Bécon-les-Granits. But two days later, he had to be evacuated to England. The war was over for him.

In September 1945, he returned to France to join the 3e RCP (ex-3 SAS), then commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Pâris de Bollardière, also a former officer of the Legion in Morocco in 1936-1940 and the 13e DBLE in 1940-1943, and a veteran of the 3 SAS.

Then, in November 1945, after seven years of service in the Legion and the SAS, Wladislas “Lucien” Cieslak was demobilized. This remarkable soldier, two times mentioned in dispatches, decorated with the war cross and the British Africa Star, joined the civilian life. He married a Scottish girl in 1946, who he had met in 1944 while completing SAS training in southwestern Scotland. They initially lived in Northern France before moving back to Scotland in 1955, where he worked as a Foreman in the local Dunlop factory. In 1966, Lucien obtained naturalization and became a British citizen. He died in 1999.

This extraordinary story of a former legionnaire allowed us to discover a part of the Foreign Legion’s history that was previously unexplored: the story of the true ancestors of the current 2e REP para-legionnaires and the true precursors of modern-day GCP commandos of the same regiment. I must once again thank Dr. David Bruce for his impetus and assistance in bringing together these extremely rare and interesting facts.

 

Wladislas Cieslak - certificate - 11e REI - 1942
The 1942 certificate confirming that Legionnaire Wladislas Cieslak had served with the 11th Foreign Regiment in 1940. The regiment was mentioned in dispatches at the army level, the highest level possible for a French unit.

Wladislas Cieslak - citation - 1942
The 1942 certificate confirming that Legionnaire Wladislas Cieslak was mentioned in dispatches at the brigade level for his action in Void, on 17 June 1940.
Wladislas Cieslak - Parachute wings - certificate - 1945
The 1945 certificate confirming that 1st Class Wladislas Cieslak had passed successfully his parachute training at Ringway in April 1944, and was awarded the parachute wings.
Wladislas Cieslak - Parachute wings - certificate - 1945 - detail
The parachute certificate in detail. Note the SAS insignia.
Wladislas Cieslak - Parachute wings - certificate - 1945
Another 1945 certificate confirms that 1st Class Wladislas Cieslak was mentioned in dispatches at the army level for his action in France in August 1944, in which he was seriously wounded, and was awarded the war cross with a palm.
Wladislas Cieslak - Parachute wings - certificate - 1945
The award certificate in detail.
2nd SAS Regiment - Special Air Service - 2 SAS
2 SAS members in Italy, 11 October 1943.

 
 

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Main information sources:
Wladislas Cieslak‘s documentation and testimony
Képi blanc magazines (1969, 1973)
Pierre Dufour, Philippe Cart-Tanneur: Légionnaires parachutistes (Editions du Fer à Marquer, 1989)
Jean-Luc Messager: Légionnaires parachutistes : 60 Ans au service de la France (L’Esprit du Livre Editions, 2008)
Ian Wellsted: With the SAS: Across the Rhine (Frontline Books, 2020)
Pierre Sergent: Je ne regrette rien (Librairie Fayard, 1972)
Ministère des Armées
Chemins de mémoire
Fondation de la France Libre
Musée de la Résistance 1940-1945
Fanion Vert et Rouge
SilverMedals
Forces Net
Google.com
Wikipedia.org

 
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More from the history of the Foreign Legion:
1863 Battle of Camerone
Foreign Legion in the Balkans: 1915-1919
Foreign Legion in Madagascar in 1947-1951
1954 Battle of Dien Bien Phu
1976 Loyada Hostage Rescue Mission
1978 Battle of Kolwezi
1932 Turenne Rail Accident
1976 Djibouti helicopter crash

 

 

The page was updated on: October 24, 2021

 

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