Thursday, May 17, 2012

Legendary Paratrooper : The Leadership of Marcel Bigeard, 1956

Syndey Morning Herald Obit 2010
Marcel Bigeard was one of the legendary paratrooper leaders of the Algerian conflict.  His training regime was as rough as they come, and his leadership style was a text-book example of leading from the front.

Bigeard's introduction to the Second World War shared the disapointment of many of his French compatriots, but he quickly rose to prominence.  Captured in 1940 in the Maginot Line, he managed to escaped the next year to Senegal joining a colonial infantry unit in De Gaulle's Free French Forces.  In 1944, he parachuted into France, and spent the postwar years in French Indo-China.
Bigeard in Indo-China. Independent.
On his third combat tour to Vietnam, it was Bigeard's misfortune to be dropped into Dien Bien Phu.  Again he showed his determination in commanding what Alistaire Horne called in his Savage War of Peace, "one of the most inspired counter-attacks."(1987, p.168)
Bigeard was subjected to three months of brainwashing, and this may have inspired his belief that the "subversive warfare" in Indo-China was the beginning of a world-wide attack of which Algeria was a part.

Arriving in Algeria, Bigeard commanded the 3rd Regiment of Colonial Parachutists, which immediately was purged of the weakest members.  Others who did not wish to be in the unit were offered transfers.  Those that remained were subjected to a brutal training regime in the dry lands of Algeria.  They returned a new breed of Para, sporting a long-brimmed camouflage cap, causing the pied noirs (Algerians of european stock) to nick-name them, the "lizards".  Bigeard denied the use of torture during the conflict, but did admit to "muscular interrogations."

Alistair Horne doesn't pull his punches in describing the paras as, "on their way to becoming a crack force; one of the most effective in the Western world". (p. 168)  An early construction of the Bigeard legend was the book The Centurions (1960) by Jean Lartéguy, which featured a character modelled after the commander.
A film based on The Centurions.
Bigeard led from the front, conducted his own reconnaissance and jumped with the first wave.  Horne notes, "tall and powerful, with a beaked nose that imparted a look of a bird of prey, Bigeard had that particularly French quality of allure essential to an outstanding commander.  He seldom did anything without panache.  Instead of arriving by staff car, or even helicopter, his favourite manner of inspecting a unit was to drop by parachute, arm at the salute as he touched down."

Imitators of the Bigeard command-style should, however, be wary.  Horne notes that in later life, when Bigeard was approaching sixty, one such troop inspection went wrong.  In Madagascar, Bigeard was dropped into shark-infected waters, breaking an arm.  His unfortunate yet "faithful" staff, who parachuted into the water with him, managed to save the General from the waters.

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