Marcel Bigeard

Marcel Bigeard
14 February, 1916 ?

Colonel Bigeard on parade in 1957
Nickname Bruno
Place of birthToul, France
Allegiance France
Service/branchFrench Army
Years of service193638
193976
RankLieutenant General
Unit6th Colonial Parachute Battalion
3rd Colonial Parachute Regiment
Battles/warsWorld War II
First Indochina War
Algerian War
Other workAuthor


Marcel Bigeard (born 14 February, 1916) is a French military officer who fought in World War II, Indochina and Algeria. He was one of the commanders in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu and is thought by many to have been a dominating influence on French 'unconventional' warfare thinking from that time onward. He is one of the most decorated soldiers in France.

He is particularly noteworthy because he rose from enlisted as Second Class (the lowest possible rank) in 1936 and to have finished his career in 1976 with the rank of Lieutenant General

Early life

Marcel Bigeard was born in Toul, Lorraine on 14 February, 1916, the son of an employee of the French railway, he was called up for military service in 1936. He served on the Maginot Line at Haguenau, Alsace. He left the French Army after two years with the rank of Caporal-chef.

World War II

In 1939 he was recalled to active duty and served, initially as a sergeant, with the 79e Régiment d'Infanterie de Forteresse (79th Fortress Infantry Regiment) in the fortified sector of Hoffen.

Bigeard rose quickly through the ranks and reached the position of adjutant, but in June 1940, during the Battle of France he was captured and made a prisoner of war. After two unsuccessful attempts he managed to escape from a German POW camp on November 11 1941. Bigeard eventually made his way to Africa to join with the Free French. In 1943 he was commissioned as an officer with the rank of Second Lieutenant. In 1944, after special service training by the British, he was parachuted into occupied France as part of a team of four with the mission of leading the resistance in the Ariège département close to the border with Andorra. One of these audacious ambushes against superior German forces gained him the British DSO. His nickname of "Bruno" has its origins in his callsign of this period. By the end of the war he had attained the rank of captain.

Indochina

Enlarge picture
Major Marcel Bigeard in Indochina
Bigeard was first sent to Indo-China in October 1945 to assist with French efforts to reassert its influence over the former French colonies. His commanded a French company and then locals in their interdiction of Viet Minh incursions around the Laos border along the 'road' R.C. 41 (Route Coloniale). In 1947 he returned to France and commanded a company in the newly forming 3è BPC (Bataillon de Parachutistes Coloniaux). He returned to Vietnam in 1948 for combat duty in the Tonkin delta with the 3è RPC then the Thai 3rd Battalion and finally back to the Tonkinese highlands in command of an Indochinese battalion. In July 1952 (his third Vietnam posting) as a major commanding the 6th BPC (Colonial Parachute Battalion) with whom he established his fame and reputation. He seems to have been a keen self-publicist which assisted his cause to get the materials needed to help him succeed. This unique style included creating the famous 'casquette Bigeard' cap from the 'excess' material of the long shorts in the standard uniform. He participated in many operations including a combat drop on Tu-Lê in November 1952.

On November 201953 Bigeard and his unit took part in Operation Castor, the opening stage of the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. Bigeard and the 6th BPC returned to Dien Bien Phu on March 16 1954, parachuting in to reinforce the now besieged garrison. He acted as deputy to Pierre Langlais, who along with other members of the "parachute mafia" took over the effective management of the battle from General Christian de Castries. Bigeard helped organize local counter-attacks. Bigeard was heavily involved in the fighting for strongpoints Eliane 1 and Eliane 2. Towards the end of the battle he was promoted (along with other commanders) to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. This was in some way seen as a thank you for his valiant command of his troops before the expected massacre at the end of the battle. Bigeard entered captivity after the main garrison fell on May 7 1954 and was repatriated 3 months later. Approximately 16,500 French Union troops fought at Dien Bien Phu, Bigeard was one of the few (less than 3000) who returned.

Algeria

During the Algerian War, Bigeard, now a Colonel, was given command of the 3e RPC (Colonial Parachute Regiment) part of Jacques Massu's 10th Parachute Division. Bigeard revitalized the unit by weeding out laggards and the uncommitted and then put the remainder through an intense training regime. He led the 3e RPC through numerous operations, the most famous being the 1957 Battle of Algiers. The 'battle' was a martial control of the Algiers region to stop the bombing and threatening of civilian targets by the FLN and to eliminate the organisation which was organising the bombing and starting to dominate the civilian population. During that battle the 3è RPC was responsible for the Casbah, home to many of the native Algerian population and a stronghold of the FLN organization in Algiers. The parachutists were able to eventually identify and neutralize the FLN organization in Algiers through intelligence garnered by imposing a system of quadrillage (block warden) on the Algerian population. The use of torture by all four parachute regiments as an extension of interrogation was no secret and General Massu (the divisional commander), himself, wrote[1] about its use and him testing it on his own body. In his 1992 autobiography, General Schmitt, lieutenant during the war under the orders of Bigeard, described the battle and the systemic use of torture by that parachute regiment[2]. The arrests, interrogation and detention were sanctioned by the then legal authority.

Quadrillage was used to identify suspects who were then subjected to interrogation and sometimes the systemic use of torture. Aside from breaking the FLN's local organization, the harsh methods used by the paras (and numerous instances of suspicious deaths while in the hands of the authorities) alienated some of the native Algerian population and particular groups in France. It is debated whether the local population were happier with some arrests and torture and no FLN bombs, threats or reprisals or were reluctantly supporting the violence in order to gain a 'greater freedom' of self rule. Bigeard has accepted that Larbi Ben M’Hidi, a key leader at the time, had been assassinated and his death disguised as a "suicide". Paul Teitgen, former General Secretary of the Algiers Police, who had been himself tortured by the Gestapo, resigned on September 12, 1957, in protest against the massive use of torture and extra-judiciary killings ordered by Generals Marcel Bigeard and Jacques Massu, who had received full powers during the 1957 Battle of Algiers to crush the insurgency by whatever means necessary. It is said by some that they threw out hundreds of prisoners into the sea from the port of Algiers or by helicopter death flights (the victims became known as the "Crevettes Bigeard", or "Bigeard's Shrimps") [3][4][5][6] but this conflicts with governmental statements. The propaganda by both sides in this 'battle' makes it difficult to know what actually happened. With the French authorities eventually revealing that the harshest treatments had been used and the FLN using the French law to defend female bombers in the face of very strong evidence whose methods of being obtained were sometimes brutal and therefore challenged.

After the initial apparent victory in Algiers, in April 1957 Bigeard moved the 3e RPC back into the Atlas mountains in pursuit of FLN groups in that province. In May he was in the area near Agounennda to ambush a large force of about 300 djounoud led by either Rabah Zerrari or Si Lakhdar[7] of the FLN group Wilaya 4. This group had already attacked an Algerian Battalion on the 21st May causing heavy casualties. From a 'cold' start Bigeard estimated the attacking group's probable route of withdrawal and laid a wide ambush along a valley of 100km². The ensuing battle and followup lasted from 23 May to 26 May 1957, but resulted in 8 paras killed for 96 enemy dead, 12 prisoners and 5 captives released. For this exemplary operation he was nicknamed "Seigneur de l'Atlas" ("Lord of the Atlas mountains") by his boss General Massu. After other urban, desert and mountain operations Bigeard was replaced as the commander of 3e RPC by Roger Trinquier in March 1958.

In 1958 Jacques Chaban-Delmas ordered the creation of the École Jeanne d'Arc in Philippeville (modern day Skikda) to provide field officers with a one-month training course in counter-insurgency techniques. Bigeard created the school and was placed in charge [Bigeard, (1975)].

In 1959 Bigeard was given command of his own sector in Ain-Sefra. Bigeard, unlike many fellow officers who were closely associated with the war, did not take part in the Algiers putsch in 1961.

Post War Career

Bigeard has recently become drawn into the controversy in France around the use of torture in the Algerian war. The admission by senior military people who were involved of the long accepted belief that torture was used systematically has put the spotlight on all figures involved. He has justified the use of torture during the Algerian War as a "necessary evil" in Le Monde newspaper, and confirms its use. He also claimed that he had not personally used torture [8].

Decorations

He has been granted a total of 25 citations, including 17 palms.

Influence on Counter-insurgency Doctrine

A key participant in the destruction of the FLN's organization during the battle of Algiers 1956, Bigeard applied concepts of counter-insurgency warfare which he articulated in his work Manuel de l’officier de renseignement (Intelligence Officer's Handbook). Among these concepts was the acceptance of the use of torture against suspected insurgents to gain information. Many of these same concepts would later appear in the seminal book La Guerre moderne, by Roger Trinquier.

Popular Culture

The character of Colonel Mathieu, played by Jean Martin, in the film The Battle of Algiers is widely believed to be a composite of Bigeard, Jacques Massu and other prominent officers.

The character of Pierre-Noel Raspeguy in the novels The Centurions and The Praetorians by Jean Larteguy is probably based on Bigeard.

Bibliography

During his career Bigeard authored or co-authored a number of books. In retirement he has continued to write, his latest work was published in 2006.
  • Contre guérilla (English: Against guerilla), 1957
  • Aucune bête au monde..., Pensée Moderne, 1959
  • Piste sans fin (English: Tracks without end), Pensée Moderne, 1963
  • Pour une parcelle de gloire (English: For a piece of glory), Plon, 1975
  • Ma Guerre d'Indochine (English: My Indochina War), Hachette, 1994
  • Ma Guerre d'Algérie (English: My Algerian War), Editions du Rocher, 1995
  • De la brousse à la jungle, Hachette-Carrère, 1994
  • France, réveille-toi! (English: France, awake!), Editions n°1, 1997 ISBN 2-86391-797-8
  • Lettres d'Indochine (English: Letters from Indochina), Editions n°1, 1998-1999 (2 Volumes)
  • Le siècle des héros (English: The Century of the Heroes), Editions n°1, 2000 ISBN 2-86391-948-2
  • Crier ma vérité, Editions du Rocher, 2002
  • Paroles d'Indochine (English: Words of Indochina), Editions du Rocher, 2004
  • J'ai mal à la France, Edition du Polygone, 2006
  • Adieu ma France (English: Good-bye my France), Editions du Rocher, 2006 ISBN 2-268-05696-1

Footnotes

1. ^ La vraie battaille d'alger, Jacques Massu, Librarie PLON, 1971
2. ^ Lieutenant chez Bigeard pendant la bataille d'Alger, Le Monde, June 15, 2001 (French)
3. ^ Film testimony by Paul Teitgen, Jacques Duquesne and Hélie Denoix de Saint Marc on the INA archive website
4. ^ Henri Pouillot, mon combat contre la torture, El Watan, November 1, 2004
5. ^ Des guerres d’Indochine et d’Algérie aux dictatures d’Amérique latine, interview with Marie-Monique Robin by the Ligue des droits de l'homme (LDH, Human Rights League), January 10, 2007
6. ^ Prise de tête Marcel Bigeard, un soldat propre ?, L'Humanité, June 24, 2000 (French)
7. ^ Pour une parcelle de gloire, Marcelle Bigeard, Librarie PLON, 1975, p 295
8. ^ Guerre d'Algérie : le général Bigeard et la pratique de la torture, Le Monde, July 4, 2000 (French)

References

  • Alistair Horne 'A Savage War of Peace. Algeria 1954-1962' Macmillan, London 1996 ISBN 0-333-66951-7
  • Bernard Fall 'Hell In a Very Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu' Da Capo 1985 ISBN 0-306-80231-7
  • Barnett Singer, John Langdon 'Contemporary Review; May98, Vol. 272 Issue 1588, p231, 7p

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