3e BMLE: 3rd Foreign Legion Task Force

The 3rd Foreign Legion Task Force (3e BMLE) was a Foreign Legion engineer battalion, the only one organized in Africa. It was formed in mid-1962 by reducing the original 3rd Foreign Infantry Regiment (3e REI). The 3e BMLE’s task was to prepare for the installation of the Foreign Legion in France and Corsica after the end of the Algerian War. The battalion was actively involved in the construction of the new Foreign Legion headquarters in Aubagne. A little-known unit, the 3e BMLE was disbanded two years later, in late 1964.

 
3rd Foreign Legion Task Force - History - 3e BMLE

 

La version française de cet article:
3e Bataillon de Marche de la Légion Etrangère

 

Introduction

In March 1962, the Évian Accords treaty was signed between France and the rebels from the Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic. The Algerian War (1954-1962) was over. At the beginning of July, after a referendum on self-determination, Algeria’s independence was officially proclaimed. As a result, French troops had to leave this North African country, which had been an integral part of France for over a century. Even the Legion was to leave its sacred homeland, which thousands of legionnaires had died for. Because of these reasons, a new unit had to be created to prepare for the transfer of the Legion’s HQ to France. A part of the 3rd Foreign Infantry Regiment (3e REI) was chosen for that purpose.

At that time, the 3e REI was stationed in the Medea region, southwest of the capital, Algiers. The regiment consisted of two independent formations, EMT 1 and EMT 2 (Etat-Major Tactique). These were Tactical Staff, a French equivalent to the U.S. Combat Command unit used in WWII; in fact, it represented an operational battalion.

Nevertheless, it was decided that the original 3e REI would be inactivated. Its EMTs had to be split up and leave Algeria. EMT 2 elements would be sent to Madagascar to strengthen the BLEM and help to constitute a brand-new 3e REI there.

On the other hand, the EMT 1 under Major Hautecoeur would be transformed into a new engineer unit of builders destined for important construction work in France. This EMT comprised the original 3e REI’s HQ and three combat companies (1st, 2nd, 4th).

3e REI - 3 REI - Foreign Legion - Algeria - 1962 - EMT 1 - Major Hautecoeur
In Algeria in 1962, Major Hautecoeur reviews his EMT 1, an operational battalion, a French equivalent to the U.S. WWII Combat Command unit.

 
 

3e BMLE: Creation and first tasks

In Algeria on August 1, 1962, the EMT 1 3e REI changed its title and was redesignated as the 3rd Foreign Legion Task Force (3e Bataillon de Marche de la Légion Etrangère, 3e BMLE). In the French military, bataillon de marche was a provisional battalion-sized force organized for specific tasks.

The new task force was still commanded by Major Jean Hautecoeur. It was stationed at Camp des Chênes (El Hamdania today), a village in the Medea region.

The 3e BMLE was composed of an HQ staff and four companies. It comprised 777 men in total, including 18 officers, 99 non-commissioned officers and 660 legionnaires.
 

Composition of the 3e BMLE in August 1962

  • Commander : Major Jean Hautecoeur
  • Deputy Commander : Captain Jean Cristofari
  • HQ Company : Captain Antoine Chollet
  • 1st Company : Captain Jean Lagier
  • 2nd Company : Captain Cros
  • 3rd Company : Captain Pierre Le Peillet

 
The first three weeks were devoted to organizing its companies and preparing for the departure from Algeria. At the same time, the legionnaires were engaged in sports activities and patrols in the mountains of the sector. To complete the battalion, a number of cadres were transferred from the 13e DBLE. This half-brigade was also reorganized and ready to leave Algeria, however they would be leaving for what is today Djibouti in the Horn of Africa.

On August 28, the 3e BMLE embarked for France, where they arrived the next day. On August 30, the battalion was stationed at Camp de la Demande in Aubagne, a town situated east of Marseille, in Provence in Southern France. It was the very first unit of the Legion to be based there in 1962. By coincidence, this old military camp had already housed the 3e REI legionnaires. It was in early 1946, when the regiment spent a few months there before their deployment to French Indochina.

In fact, the Camp de la Demande in Aubagne was chosen in 1962 as a new location for the 1st Foreign Regiment (1er RE), the Legion’s Motherhouse. The latter had to leave Sidi Bel Abbès in Algeria, a garrison town which had been occupied by the Legion since the late 1840s. The departure of the 1er RE was scheduled for late October 1962.

Meanwhile, the 1st Company, 3e BMLE moved to Puits-d’Auzon, a village not far from Puyloubier, about 25 miles (40 km) north from Aubagne; a large retirement home for legionnaires has been operating in Puyloubier since 1955.

The main mission of the 3e BMLE was to carry out construction work at Camp de la Demande for the temporary installations of the 1er RE and the battalion itself. Within a few weeks, thanks to the commitment of the legionnaires, the first FILLOD prefabricated houses began to emerge from the ground, despite frequent rains, which turned the construction sites into huge mud holes.

The work in the camp took most of the battalion’s time. In addition to the temporary installations, it was necessary to repair a large Place d’Armes (a parade ground) and develop its surroundings. It was also necessary to establish a sports stadium and build a new entrance to the camp. However, sports activities were not forgotten by the 3e BMLE either. Soccer/football, volleyball and handball matches between the platoons and companies maintained a healthy rivalry within the unit.

The 3e BMLE legionnaires also participated in maneuvers organized by the HQ of the 9th Military Region, to which the battalion had been assigned. First of all, it was “Exercise Caroubier” which took place northwest of Aubagne, in the region of Draguignan, in October 1962. The 2nd and 3rd Companies of the 3e BMLE participated. At the same time, the 1st Company left Puits-d’Auzon to be stationed in Puyloubier. The legionnaires of the company were tasked with several construction projects there.

By the end of October, the 1er RE arrived in Aubagne, at Camp de la Demande. The men were accomodated in the already built FILLOD prefabricated houses. The Intervention Company 1er RE – the only combat unit of the regiment at the time – replaced the 1st Company, 3e BMLE at Puits-d’Auzon.

November 11, 1962 witnessed the very first public ceremony in France for the battalion. A platoon of the 3e BMLE paraded alongside the Intervention Company 1er RE in Aix-en-Provence, a town north of Aubagne. Years earlier, in 1940, after the Battle of France, the very same town had hosted survivors of the 11e REI, 12e REI and the Foreign Legion Sathonay Depot for several weeks.

The end of the year was marked by the first Christmas in Europe for the legionnaires of the 3e BMLE and 1er RE, as well as by a harsh winter. On Christmas Eve, a thick layer of snow covered the Marseille region. Thus, the 2nd Company was ordered to clear away the snow from tracks and switches at the Marseille-Saint-Charles Station, the main railway station of the metropole.

 

3e BMLE - 3 BMLE - Foreign Legion - Insignia - Badge - 1962
The 3e BMLE’s badge. Designed in late 1962 by Captain Cristofari, a deputy commander. The badge was inspired by that one of the 3e REI, the regiment from which the 3e BMLE came. The number is also reminiscent of the unit’s origins. However, it should be noted that even in Algeria in 1955, there had existed two other BMLEs, which were assigned to the 3e REI some time later and became its 3rd and 4th Battalions.

3e BMLE - 3 BMLE - Legion Etrangere - Jean Hautecœur - 1963
Major Jean Hautecoeur, the first commander of the 3e BMLE.
3e BMLE - 3 BMLE - Foreign Legion - France - 1962 - Camp de la Demande
The Camp de la Demande and its original entrance. A new, more impressive entry would be built in 1963 and the camp would be renamed. Note the tents used by the 3e BMLE in the early months for living at the camp.
3e BMLE - 3 BMLE - Foreign Legion - France - 1962 - 1st Company - Puits-d'Auzon
General Lefort, the then chief of the Legion, reviews a detachment of the 1st Company, 3e BMLE at Puits-d’Auzon, early September 1962.
3e BMLE - 3 BMLE - Foreign Legion - France - 1962 - Exercice Caroubier
Exercice Caroubier and legionnaires of the 3e BMLE, October 1962.
3e BMLE - 3 BMLE - Foreign Legion - France - 1962 - Aix-en-Provence - Parade
The legionnaires (Intervention Company 1er RE and a 3e BMLE platoon) parade in Aix-en-Provence, 11 November 1962.

 
 

3e BMLE: Southern France and Corsica 1963-1964

In January 1963, the 3e BMLE legionnaires moved to Briançon in the Hautes-Alpes for a ski course, while a significant part of the Legion was still serving in the Sahara in Algeria.

On February 12, after having left Puyloubier, the 1st Company shipped to Corsica to carry out work in support of the GILE (Training Group, the future 4e RE), a training school of the Legion. The latter had arrived in Corsica from Algeria a few months before, in June 1962. The 3e BMLE legionnaires were to build a Legion military camp at Borgo (to house 400 men), two “Ball-Plast” shooting ranges (for rubber bullets used for short range shooting) at Corte and Bonifacio, and an obstacle course track.

On April 10, 1963, Major Guy Halftermeyer replaced Major Hautecœur and assumed command of the 3e BMLE.

April 30 marked the 100th anniversary of the 1863 Battle of Camerone. It was the first Camerone Day officially celebrated in France by the Motherhouse of the Legion. The festivities took place at the new camp, now renamed the Caserne Viénot, with the famous War Memorial being transferred from Sidi Bel Abbès to Aubagne and placed at the camp’s large Place d’Armes. The battalion was actively involved in the celebration.

In May, the men of the 1st and 2nd Companies participated in the Fair Game maneuvers in Corsica, opposing the U.S. Marines, who were training in landing operations.

On 14 July 1963, the French national holiday (Bastille Day), the 3e BMLE men paraded alongside their 1er RE comrades down the Champs-Elysées in Paris. Afterwards, back in Aubagne, the legionnaires took up the shovel and the pickaxe once more and continued their work as builders.

On February 4, 1964, the foundation stone of the future Quartier Viénot was laid by the authorities. This foundation stone was that of the poste de sécurité (guardhouse) which would be located near the new entrance of the Quartier Viénot. The construction of this guard post was also assigned to the 3e BMLE.

In Corsica in April 1964, after a long stay at Borgo, the 1st Company of the 3e BMLE moved to Camp Fiume Secco at Calvi (today called Camp Raffalli). There, the unit joined the vanguard of the 2e REP, who had already been installed at the camp for four months. The 1st Company had to build a “Ball-Plast” shooting range for the regiment and arrange the buildings within the camp, as well as forts in Calvi, to be ready to house the 2e REP. The whole parachute regiment would be transferred to the camp in Corsica in mid-1967.

In May, some 60 cadres and legionnaires of the 3e BMLE were detached to the Military Infantry School (EMI), a French infantry academy that was based at the time in Montpellier, a city some 80 miles (130 km) west of Marseille. The 3e BMLE men were tasked with building an important sports complex for the school. Work on an obstacle course, an athletic stadium and two tennis courts began on May 11 and would be completed six months later, on November 15.

On November 25, 1964, in Aubagne, the 3e BMLE was disbanded. The only Foreign Legion engineer battalion formed in Africa, it had survived just two years. Formed initially by the elements of the 3e REI, it saw cadres and legionnaires from most Legion regiments alternating within its ranks in 1963 and 1964. These men carried out important work to comfortably establish the Legion in France and in Corsica.

Even today, all legionnaires, candidates, civilians or media have to first pass through the guard post of the 1er RE’s Quartier Viénot, the very first building of the new Motherhouse of the Legion in France. This building was finished 55 years ago by the almost forgotten 3e BMLE, a unit of such great importance for the installation of the current Foreign Legion on the old continent.

 

3e BMLE - 3 BMLE - Foreign Legion - France - 1963 - Briancon
3e BMLE legionnaires at Briançon, January 1963. At the time, an important part of the Legion was still serving in the Sahara of Algeria.

3e BMLE - 3 BMLE - Foreign Legion - France - 1963 - General Lefort - 1st Company - Puyloubier
General Lefort and a detachment of the 1st Company, 3e BMLE in Puyloubier, late January 1963.
3e BMLE - 3 BMLE - Foreign Legion - France - 1963 - Major Hautecœur - 1st Company - Marseille
Major Hautecoeur reviews the 1st Company in Marseille, before their deployment to Corsica, February 12, 1963.
3e BMLE - 3 BMLE - Foreign Legion - France - 1963 - Aubagne - Major Hautecœur - Major Halftermeyer - Colonel Vadot
Major Halftermeyer, Major Hautecœur, and Colonel Vadot (the then head of the 1st Foreign Regiment) after the Change of Command ceremony in Aubagne, April 10, 1963.
3e BMLE - 3 BMLE - Foreign Legion - France - 1963 - Guy Halftermeyer
Guy Halftermeyer. He took over the 3e BMLE on 10 April 1963. A former officer of the 13e DBLE and the 4e REI, a big sportsman, he finished his Legion career in 1967, as the second-in-command of the 13e DBLE. Colonel Halftermeyer, Grand Officer of the Légion d’honneur, three times wounded and six times mentioned in dispatches, passed away in September 1994.
3e BMLE - 3 BMLE - Foreign Legion - Corsica - 1963 - 1st Company - Borgo
The 1st Company, 3e BMLE at Borgo in Corsica, 1963. Note the FILLOD prefabricated houses of a future instruction camp.
3e BMLE - 3 BMLE - Foreign Legion - France - 1962-63 - Aubagne - Camp de la Demande - Place d'Armes
The construction works on the future Place d’Armes of the Camp de la Demande in Aubagne, in 1962-1963.
3e BMLE - 3 BMLE - Foreign Legion - France - 1963 - Aubagne - Caserne Vienot - Place d'Armes - Camerone
The very first Camerone Day celebrated in Aubagne, at the camp temporarily called Caserne Viénot, on 30 April 1963. It was also the 100th anniversary of the famous battle.
3e BMLE - 3 BMLE - Foreign Legion - France - 1963 - Aubagne - Caserne Vienot - Entry
A bulldozer of the 3e BMLE during the construction of the new entrance to the camp (called the Caserne Viénot at the time), 1963.
3e BMLE - 3 BMLE - Foreign Legion - France - 1963 - Aubagne - Caserne Vienot - Entrance
The works on the new entrance to the camp, 1963.
3e BMLE - 3 BMLE - Foreign Legion - France - 1964 - Aubagne - Quartier Vienot - Poste de securite - Guardhouse
The future Poste de sécurité (guardhouse) next to the new entrance of the Quartier Viénot (ex-Camp de la Demande, ex-Caserne Viénot), 1964. The construction of this guardhouse was also assigned to the 3e BMLE.
3e BMLE - 3 BMLE - Foreign Legion - France - 1964 - Aubagne - Quartier Vienot - Guardhouse
The future guardhouse of the Quartier Viénot, realized by the 3e BMLE.
3e BMLE - 3 BMLE - Foreign Legion - France - 2015 - Aubagne - Quartier Vienot - Guardhouse
The guardhouse of the Quartier Viénot nowadays.
3e BMLE - 3 BMLE - Foreign Legion - Corsica - 1964 - 1st Company - Camp de Fiume Secco - Calvi
Camp Fiume Secco, 1964. The 1st Company, 3e BMLE march within a future base of the 2e REP, retitled to Camp Raffalli in 1968. Except for the 2e REP, this company remains the only Foreign Legion unit that has ever been placed at this camp.
3e BMLE - 3 BMLE - Foreign Legion - Corsica - 1964 - 1st Company - Camp de Fiume Secco - Calvi
Between the works, a singing course for the 1st Company, 3e BMLE at the Camp Fiume Secco near Calvi, 1964.
3e BMLE - 3 BMLE - Foreign Legion - France - 1964 - Marseille - Bastille Day - Halftermeyer
Major Halftermeyer is heading the 3e BMLE in Marseille, during the 1964 Bastille Day (14 July) parade.
3e BMLE - 3 BMLE - Foreign Legion - France - 1964 - Montpellier - EMI
The works on the future sports complex of the Military Infantry School (EMI) in Montpellier, 1964. A detachment of some sixty men of the 3e BMLE spent six months there.
3e BMLE - 3 BMLE - Foreign Legion - France - 1964 - Montpellier - EMI
An NCO and a legionnaire of the 3e BMLE install a commemorative plaque of the battalion at an obstacle of the EMI sports complex in Montpellier, 1964.
3e BMLE - 3 BMLE - Foreign Legion - France - 1964 - Aubagne - Dissolution - Halftermeyer - Vadot
The dissolution of the 3e BMLE in Aubagne, 25 November 1964. Major Halftermeyer (left) reviews his battalion for the last time, with Colonel Vadot of the 1er RE.
3e BMLE - 3 BMLE - Foreign Legion - France - 1964 - Aubagne - Fanion - Halftermeyer
Major Halftermeyer and the fanion of the 3e BMLE.
3e BMLE - 3 BMLE - Foreign Legion - 1963 - Honorable discharge certificate
Certificat de bonne conduite (Honorable discharge certificate) for a 3e BMLE legionnaire, issued by Major Halftermeyer in Aubagne, in late 1963. The rare document was published with the kind permission of Krzysztof Schramm, historian of the A.A.A.L.E. de Pologne veteran association and the author of Zygmunt Jatczak: I regret nothing.

 
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Main information & images sources:
Pierre Dufour: Génie-Légion (Lavauzelle, 2000)
Képi blanc magazines
Foreign Legion annual bulletins
Wikipedia.org

 
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Related articles:
History of the 1st Foreign Engineer Regiment
2nd Foreign Engineer Regiment: The origins
61st Engineer-Legion Mixed Battalion
1st Engineer HQ & Services Company
BLEM: Foreign Legion Madagascar Battalion

 

 

More from the Foreign Legion’s history:
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
1976 Djibouti helicopter crash
1978 Battle of Kolwezi
1982 Mont Garbi Accident

 

 

The page was updated on: July 26, 2022

 

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