271: French Foreign Legion Parachute Regiment 2. REP/part 2:3

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French Foreign Legion Parachute Regiment 2. REP badges

Battle of Kolwezi

The Battle of Kolwezi was an airborne operation by the French Army that took place in May 1978 in Zaire during the Shaba II invasion of Zaire by the Front for the National Liberation of the Congo. It aimed at rescuing European and Zairian hostages held by Katangese rebels after they conquered the city of Kolwezi. The operation succeeded with the liberation of the hostages and light military casualties.

Situation of Kolwezi

The city of Kolwezi is situated in the ore-rich region of Shaba (now Katanga), in the South-East of Zaïre (now République démocratique du Congo). In 1978, the city held 100,000 inhabitants in a 40 km² urban area, with city quarters separated by hills. It is a strategic spot, as it lies on important roads and railroad lines that link Lubumbashi to Dilolo. There is an airport 6 km from the centre of the city.

Hostage taking by rebels

In March 1978, a meeting took place between Algerian and Angolese officials and militants of the Front for the National Liberation of the Congo. Zairian intelligence was made aware of a possible destabilisation operation in the Shaba region, which had a high value because of its mines of copper, cobalt, uranium and radium. For some months the Soviet Union had been purchasing all the cobalt available on the free market, but western intelligence did not connect this to the upcoming crisis. The FNLC operation was to be headed by Nathaniel Mbumba, with assistance from Cubans and East German officers.

In May 1978, an uprising took place in Karanga against dictator Mobutu. On 11 May, a 3,000 to 4,000 man strong Katangan rebel group arrived, accompanied by the 2nd Cuban Division; departing from Angola, it had crossed neutral Zambia. Upon arriving, they took about 3,000 Europeans as hostages and carried out various exactions, particularly after the intervention of Zairian paratroopers on 18. A Panhard AML 60 group of the Zairian Army rallied the rebels.

Between 90 to 280 Europeans were killed. From 15 May, hundreds of rebels started departing the city in stolen vehicles, leaving merely 500 men led by Cubans. Most were garrisoned in the quarter of Manika and in the suburbs.

Dictator Mobutu requested foreign assistance from Belgium, France and the USA. The day after the airport was retaken, Mobutu arrived in person to boost troop morale and reassure the population; he seized the opportunity to parade several European corpses in Villa P2. This struck western public opinion and led to a widespread acceptance of the decision by the Elysée to launch a parachute operation.

Pierre Yambuya later reported that the Europeans of Villa P2 had in fact been executed by troops of Colonel Bosange because Mobutu wished to provoke an international intervention.

Franco-Belgian operation


On 16 May at 0:45, the 2nd REP, led by Colonel Philippe Erulin, was put on alert. A meeting took place in West Germany between Belgian and French officials so as to coordinate a common operation; the meeting was a failure, as the French wanted to deploy their forces to neutralise the rebels and secure the city, while the Belgians wanted to evacuate foreigners. Eventually the Belgian Paracommando Regiment was sent independently. Meanwhile, elements of the planned operation started to leak into the press, causing fears that surprise would be lost if a swift action were not taken.

On 17 May, soldiers of the 2e REP embarked in 4 DC-8s of the French airline UTA and were flown from Solenzara to Kinshasa. Heavy equipment followed in a Boeing 707, arriving on the 18th at 23:15. Preparation took place at Kinshasa military airport, notably instruction in using American parachutes that took place in the night of the 18th to the 19th of May. A briefing also took place, given by Colonel Gras, the military attaché of the French embassy. At 11:00, the first wave took off in 2 French Transalls and 4 Zairian C-130 Hercules. Meanwhile, the Belgian Paracommandos were regrouping in Kamina.

The first C-130 of the Belgian Air Force took off on 18 May at 13:15 from Melsbroek Air Force Base, bound for Kamina via Kinshasa. At the time authorisation for the crossing of French airspace had not yet been given, and it was obtained just as the third C-130 was taking off. 36 hours afterwards, the Paracommando Regiment was deployed in Zaire and ready for action.

French Bonite (or Léopard) and Belgian Red Bean Operations

Legionaries of Opération Léopard took off on 17 May from Solenzara in Corsica, and arrived in Kinshasa after a 10-hour flight. On 19 May, they were flown to Kolwezi, 1500 km away. At 14:30, a 450-man first wave jumped from a 250-metre altitude into the old hippodrome of the city. The drop was performed under fire from light infantry weapons, and six men were wounded as they landed, while another was isolated from his unit, killed and mutilated in the street before even removing his parachute.

A violent firefight ensued in the streets, while French snipers started picking out threatening rebels, killing 10 of them at 300 metres with the newly introduced FR F1 rifle. European hostages and those who had been able to hide started to come under the control and protection of the French. A rebel column, led by an AML vehicle, attempted a counter-attack that was stopped around 15:00 near the railway station by rocket fire. Using infantry tactics, the REP quickly neutralised all rebel groups in the city.

At 18:00, the city was under French control and mostly secured. During the night, rebels attempted to infiltrate but were stopped by an ambush prepared by the French Foreign Legion.

In the night of the 19th to the 20th of May, further fighting occurred. On the 20th, at 6:30, another wave of 250 paratroopers (the 4th company and the exploration and reconnaissance section) was dropped east of the city, taking rebel positions from behind and occupying this part of the city before noon. This group entered the P2 quarter and discovered the massacres that had occurred there.

On 20 may, the Paracommando Regiment landed on the airport and headed towards the city on foot. Elements of the French Foreign Legion opened fire and a few exchanges occurred before the units identified each other; the incident did not cause casualties. The Belgians then entered Kolwezi and started evacuating Europeans towards the Airport, leaving the securing of the city to the French. The first hostages were evacuated to Europe at noon.

Initially ordered to stay for 72 hours at most, the Belgians ended up staying over a month, along with Moroccan troops, supplying the population with food and maintaining order.

In the afternoon of 20 May, Metalkat (now Metal-Shaba) was taken by the 2 REP, forcing 200 rebels away. Sergent-Chef Daniel was killed during the fight. This swift operation provided the paratroops with a surprise element that they exploited, capturing the centre of the city.

Within two days, the entire city was under control, and 2,800 Europeans were secured and evacuated on 21 May.

The entire region soon came under control of French and Belgian paratroops, until they were relieved by an African force led by Morocco and comprising Senegal, Togo and Gabon. Between the departure of the French and the arrival of the Inter-African force, Kolwezi was under control of Mobutu’s force, who arrested and executed hundreds, labeled as “rebels”.

2,200 Europeans and 3,000 Africans were saved, while 60 Europeans and about 100 Africans were massacred.

The rebels lost about 400 killed and 160 prisoners, while 1,500 light and heavy weapons were seized, notably 10 heavy machine guns, 38 light machine guns, 4 artillery pieces, 15 mortars and 21 rocket launchers. Also, 2 AMLs were destroyed.

The French lost 5 killed and 25 wounded with the 2 REP, and 6 missing at the French military mission. One Belgian paratrooper and 8 Moroccans were killed.

The 311th Zairian paratrooper battalion lost 14 killed and 8 wounded.

700 African civilians and 170 Europeans were killed during the entire operation. The operation was an illustration of the efficiency and effectiveness of light infantry when used with the element of surprise and with good intelligence and logistics.

Mobutu’s regime was strengthened and Franco-Zairian military cooperation was increased. French industrial groups, notably Thomson-CSF, CGE and Péchiney, made notable increases in market share in Zaire.

1st Foreign Parachute Regiment

The 1st Foreign Parachute Regiment (French: 1er Régiment Étranger de Parachutistes, 1er REP) was a Foreign Legion airborne unit of the French Army. It fought in the First Indochina War, Suez Crisis and Algerian War, but was disbanded after taking part in a putsch against the French government in 1961.

Creation and Designations

  • July 1st, 1948 : Creation of the 1 BEP
  • December 31st, 1950: Unit dissolved
  • March 18th, 1951: Second creation of 1 BEP
  • September 1st, 1955: The unit is enlarged to a regiment and redesignated 1 REP
  • April 30th, 1961: Final disbanding of 1 REP


The 1st foreign parachute regiment (French: 1er Régiment Étranger de Parachutistes, 1er REP) was created July 1st, 1948 in Khamsis, near Sidi Bel Abbès, Algeria, with the designation of 1st Foreign Parachute Battalion (French: 1er Battalion Étranger de Parachutistes, 1er BEP).

The battalion boarded the transport ship “Pasteur” on the 24th of October, 1948 at Mers El-Kebir, and arrived in Indochina on the 12th of November that same year. During the entire period of conflict in Indochina, the unit primarily saw action in Tonkin (northern Vietnam).

As part of a consolidation of parachute-trained French formations, the unit absorbed Lieutenant Morin’s parachute company of the 3rd REI on June 1st, 1949, thus increasing their numbers.

On September 16th, 1950, the French post at Dong Khe was overrun, with only a small handful of survivors of the garrison making their way south to French lines at That Khe. In response, on September 17th and 18th, the battalion jumped on That Khe in order to reinforce the combat command under Lieutenant Colonel Lepage, operating out of nearby Lang Son, and to rescue the evacuated survivors of the battle of Cao Bang, who were holed up in That Khe. Following a consolidation of French forces at That Khe, the battalion lead the French forces north towards Dong Khe with plans to retake the town, hold it long enough to link up with French forces retreating from the north, and then evacuate south. Although the two French groups were able to link up, heavy Viet Mihn interdiction on the roads and constant ambushes in the thick jungle forced the French off the roads in an attempt to bypass the town. In so doing, the entire battle group was forced into the Coc Xo gorge, where it was destroyed piecemeal. An attempt to reinforce the battle group occurred on the night of October 8th when approximately 570 additional reinforcements were dropped near That Khe in an attempt to draw the Viet Minh forces away from the gorge, but this operation became hopelessly bogged down and the reinforcements were cut to pieces in turn. The unit was almost entirely destroyed in the subsequent battle in October around Dong Khe, with only 130 men of the battalion remaining of the original 500 who jumped. In this engagement, the battalion distinguished itself in its willingness to go to great lengths to evacuate their wounded through forbidding terrain, including an incident in which the men rapelled down a 75 meter cliff at the Coc Xo gorge with the wounded strapped to their backs. Over the course of the battle and subsequent engagements between the 17th of September and the 30th of October, the unit lost 21 officers, 46 NCOs, and 420 men killed or wounded, including the battalion commander, Pierre Segretain, killed in action the night of October 7th. Only isolated elements of the battalion were able to rejoin the French lines, including Captain Jeanpierre, who would later command the regiment in Algeria. Having ceased to exist as a combat-worthy formation, the unit was disbanded on December 31st, 1950.

The 1st BEP reformed on the 18th of March, 1951 from the survivors of the original battalion (which had up to that point been attached to the 2nd BEP), as well as men from the 2nd BEP and reinforcements newly arrived from North Africa. Thus the battalion consisted of 3 companies, including a headquarters formation, the 1st and 2nd companies, and a company composed of Indochinese volunteers.

On the 10th of September, 1951, the unit returned to combat during Operation Tulip, part of General de Lattre de Tassigny’s effort to put the Viet Minh on the defensive around the Cho Ben pass, north of Hoa Binh. The operation was a tactical success with the battalion successfully assisting in the capture of Hoa Binh, but further counter-attacks by the Viet Minh in November convinced the French military command at they were overextended and as a result the area was evacuated, with the last units leaving Hoa Binh in February, 1952.

Having reached an apparent stalemate in early 1952 around the Red River Delta, the French command again decided to go on the offensive, giving the plan the code name Operation Lorraine. On November 9th, 1952, the 1st BEP and other airborne formations were dropped into combat near Phu Doan, capturing a quantity of Viet Minh supplies and securing the area. However, the operation failed in drawing the Viet Minh into a large, set-battle (as the French commanders had hoped), and as such the operation was abandoned and the remaining French forces were withdrawn on the 16th and 17th of November. The battalion was one of the formations selected to hold the rearguard post at Na San, where it sustained a fierce assault from the Viet Minh between November 23rd and December 2nd, 1952. The post was well-fortified and held in the face of overwhelming numbers, with the bloodied Viet Minh falling back after a week of fighting.

After falling back to the French defensive positions around the de Lattre line, the battalion was reorganized and reinforced, with a third company of legionnaires being added, bringing the total strength of the battalion to 4 combat companies: 3 legion and 1 Indochinese. In addition, on September 1st, 1953 the 1st Foreign Parachute Heavy Mortar Company (French: 1ere compagnie étrangère parachutiste de mortiers lourds, 1 CEPML) was created and attached to the 1st BEP.

On November 21st, 1953, the unit was dropped as part of the second wave of French troops into the area around Dien Bien Phu as part of Operation Castor, with the objective of securing a WWII-era landing strip and drawing the Viet Minh into another pitched battle against a well-defended position. The operation was completed without incident, with the battalion digging in around Dien Bien Phu in late November, 1953. During the battle of Dien Bien Phu, the battalion was divided into mobile fire-brigades, with the primary focus being the Huguette forts, specifically Huguette 5. The 1 CEPML was stationed at Dominique 2 until the 14th of March, 1954, at which point it was shifted to various different locations in the fort. Despite furious resistance, the 1st BEP is destroyed for a second time on May 7th, 1954 with the final fall of the outpost. The unit loses 316 men killed in action over the course of the siege, not including those who subsequently die in captivity in Indochina.


Following the Geneva Conference, on February 1st, 1955, the unit embarked of the steamship “Pasteur” in Saigon and arrived at Mers el-Kebir on the 24th of the same month. On September 1st, 1955, the 1st BEP was expanded to a regiment-level formation and renamed 1st REP. From that point on, the unit was based out of Zeralda.

November 6th, 1956, the regiment landed in Egypt at Port-Said and Port-Fuad as part of the French military force participating in the Suez canal crisis. It was evacuated piecemeal between December 10th and 22nd, 1956, as which point the towns were handed over to United Nations control.

From 1957 onwards, the regiment was sent back to Algeria, first in Algiers, then in the djebel, and finally at Guelma.

On the 29th of May, 1958, during operation “Taureau 3,” the regimental commander Lt. Col. Jeanpierre was killed when his helicopter was shot down by rebels. His successor, Col. Borthier, assumed command on the 17th of June 1958 with the mission of securing Algeria.

On the eve of the Algiers putsch of April, 1961, the regiment was commanded by Helie Denoix de Saint Marc, as Lt. Col. Guiraud was on leave.

With the accession of the cadre, Major de Saint-Marc activated the regiment alongside the mutineers, and began the putsch on April 21st by marching on Algiers. Following the failure of the putsch, the regiment was disbanded the 30th of April, 1961 under the orders of Pierre Messmer, the minister of the army. The legionnaires left their camp singing Edith Piaf’s song Non, je ne regrette rien. At that point, part of the regiment deserted and went over to the OAS. Those who did not join in the putsch were escorted back to France and detained at Fort de Nogent. This event marked the end of the 1st REP.

From that point onwards, the 2nd REP remains the only foreign parachute regiment in the French army.

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