The 13th Demi-Brigade is one of the legendary units of the French Foreign Legion. During World War II, it was the only formation to immediately join Gen. Charles de Gaulle and the Free French Forces when France capitulated to to the Nazis.
From the creation of Vichy France to the country’s eventual liberation, the 13th Demi-Brigade carried the Legion’s honor in battles across the world. The 13th fought in Norway and across Africa, Syria, Italy, and France before victory was achieved.
Allied soldiers during the Battle of Narvik where French legionnaires with the 13th Demi-Brigade and other forces liberated Norwegian ports from Nazi occupation.
The 13th was formed in 1940 as a light mountain unit to fight in the Winter War, the conflict between the Soviet Union and Finland. The Winter War ended before the 13th could get into the fight, but an invasion of Norway by Germany soon followed, so the 13th went to fight them instead.
The 13th took part in two landings in Norway, both aimed at the port town of Narvik. The first was on May 6 at a point seven miles north of the city, and the second was on May 26 from a position to the south. Conditions during the fight were brutal. Temperatures fell as low as minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit and the legionnaires were attacking a force three times their size.
While the German’s conquest was ultimately successful, the victory wouldn’t matter. The legionnaires fought through vicious machine-gun fire, Luftwaffe attacks, and artillery bombardment, finally pushing the Germans out of Narvik and into the surrounding country. The Legion was pursuing the Germans across the snow and were only 10 miles from the Swedish border when the call came in to return home.
The Germans had invaded France, and all hands were needed to defend Paris.
France surrenders to Germany following the fall of Paris.
But it was too late. The brutal blitzkrieg laid France low before the legionnaires could get back. They landed in France only to learn that it was now German territory. After a brief debate about whether to continue fighting, the force’s commander executed a lieutenant who wanted to abandon the mission, and the bulk of the force went to England.
It was here that the 13th, answering the call of de Gaulle, joined the Free French Forces, the only legion able and willing to do so. As the rest of the Legion decided how much to cooperate with German authorities assigned to watch them per the armistice, the 13th was deciding how many Germans each of them would kill.
They first got their chance when they were sent to North Africa in the end of 1940. There, they captured Gabon and the Cameroons essentially unopposed and helped the British during vicious battles against Italian forces to secure territory in East Africa. In June 1941, they were sent to Syria where they would fight their own — Legion forces loyal to Vichy France.
The 6th Foreign Legion Infantry was garrisoned in Syria, an area under French mandate. Vichy France was allowing German forces to use their ports and airfields in Syria, posing a threat to the Suez Canal and British oil fields in the Middle East. The situation could not stand, and legionnaire was doomed to fight legionnaire.
The 13th, for their part, took a risk in the hopes that a legion civil war could be avoided. They fought through other French forces, at one point using outdated artillery in direct-fire mode as improvised anti-tank guns. When they had fought through to the Legion forces, they sent a small patrol to the outpost.
The outpost sent out a guard who presented the patrol with a salute and then arrested the patrol’s members. The fight was on.
Free French Forces legionnaires, likely members of the 13th Demi-Brigade, maneuver during the Battle of Bir Hacheim.
(Photo by Sgt. Chetwyn Len)
Luckily for the 13th, the 6th and other forces under Vichy control had been stripped of most of their serious weapons and were suffering severe morale problems. But the fight was fierce but brief. The 13th Demi-Brigade won the battle, a fight that included bayonet charges and grenade assaults, and it marched into Damascus in triumph eight days later.
They allowed all members of the 6th to join the 13th if they so wished. Less than 700 of nearly 3,000 did so.
The 13th was then sent to Bir Hacheim, where approximately 3,700 men faced about 37,000 attackers. The Italian armored commander leading the first assault was assured by Rommel himself that the Allied soldiers, mostly French forces, would fall within 15 minutes.
Instead, the French forces destroyed 33 tanks in the first hour and held out for another two weeks. When the defenders finally gave in, they did so on their terms, conducting a nighttime breakout through German lines with the walking wounded and healthy troops marching and providing cover fire for the wounded on litters.
Allied forces celebrate at the end of their successful evacuation out of Bir Hacheim.
They made it through the desert to El Alamein where the commander, the legendary prince and Lt. Col. Dmitri Amilakhvari, reportedly had a dream where he was hit with a mortal wound and the last rites were administered by someone other than his chaplain.
During the first morning of the Battle of El Alamein, a German counterattack with tanks and air support felled the brave prince when a shell fragment pierced the iconic legion white kepi that he wore instead of a helmet. His last rites were administered by a French chaplain.
The 13th failed to take their objective, and the British command sidelined them for the next year.
While the end of their time in Africa was less than glorious, they were still heroes of fighting in multiple countries, and they were still needed to continue the war. Their next chance at glory was in Italy in April, 1944, during fighting that would be brief but bloody.
The legionnaires, with two infantry battalions, an artillery battery, and an anti-tank company, were sent against Italian troops dug into the mountainsides and fortresses of Italy. They were tasked in some areas with climbing rock faces and castle walls under fire. In one case, six troops climbed a wall with bags of grenades and managed to take the high ground from the enemy and rain the explosives down on the enemy in a daring coup.
Italy cost the legionnaires over 450 killed and wounded, but the war wasn’t over. The D-Day invasions of Normandy were underway, and the French Foreign Legion wasn’t about to sit out the liberation of France.
13th Demi-Brigade troops parade during a ceremony in the 1950s or ’60s.
(Private collection of Lieutenant-colonel Paul Lucien Paschal)
The Legion wasn’t called up for the D-Day invasion, but it was for Operation Dragoon on Aug. 15, 1944, the lesser-known, second amphibious landing in France — this time, in the south. They landed in Provence and made their way through Toulon, Hyeres, Avignon, Lyon, Autun, Dijon, Besancon, and Vosges, slowly pushing the Nazis out and liberating the French people.
Paris was liberated on August 25, but the legionnaires were to the south and east, continuing to push the invaders from the southern French coast north past Switzerland and east, back towards Germany. The 13th, unfortunately, was not allowed to follow.
It had suffered over 40 percent losses in the fighting in France and western Italy as they pushed the Germans back. The unit was put on other duties as newly revived Legion units and Free French Forces drove with the rest of the Allied forces into Germany.
Even though the 13th had distinguished itself during fighting everywhere from the Arctic Circle, across Africa, into Italy, and finally France, it was sent back to Africa for peacetime duties within a year of the armistice with Germany.