Marcel "Bruno" Bigeard (14 February 1916 – 18 June 2010) was 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 onwards. He was one of the most decorated soldiers in France, and is particularly noteworthy because he rose from enlisted as Second Class, the lowest possible rank, in 1936 and ultimately finished his career in 1976 with the rank of Lieutenant General (Général de corps d'armée). He was particularly controversial for his defense of the use of torture in counter-insurgency operations in the Algerian War.
Marcel Bigeard was born in Toul, Meurthe-et-Moselle on 14 February 1916, the son of Charles Bigeard (1880–1948), a railway worker, and Sophie Bigeard (1880–1964), a domineering housewife. He also had an older sister, Charlotte Bigeard, fours years his senior. Lorraine instilled a strong patriotism in him and his mother a will to win; those two would remain his strongest driving forces. At fourteen, Bigeard quit school to help his parents financially by taking a position in the local Société Générale bank, where he did well.
He was called up in September 1936 to do his military service in the French Army; initially Bigeard had no enthusiasm for what would become his calling. He served on the Maginot Line with the 23rd Infantry Regiment at Haguenau in Alsace. Returning to civil life after the required two years with the rank of caporal-chef, Bigeard returned to Toul and his work as a bank clerk at the local Société Générale bank.
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 as a warrant officer, 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 radio call sign of this period. By the end of the war he had attained the rank of captain.
Bigeard was first sent to Indo-China in October 1945 to assist with French efforts to reassert its influence over the former French colonies. He commanded the 23rd Colonial Infantry and then volunteered to train Thai auxiliaries 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 3rd Thai 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 newly created 6th BPC (Colonial Parachute Battalion) with whom he established his fame and reputation. He was a keen self-publicist, welcoming journalists among his troops, which assisted his cause to get the materials needed to help him succeed. His units were noted for their dedication to physical fitness above the normal requirements by the army. 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 20 November 1953 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 16 March 1954, parachuting in to reinforce the now besieged garrison. He acted as deputy to Pierre Langlais, and was a member of the "parachute mafia" – a unity of the high-ranking paratroopers at the camp who oversaw combat operations. Historian Bernard Fall asserts that an armed Bigeard, along with Langlais, took de facto command of the camp from General Christian de Castries in mid-March. The historian Jules Roy, however, makes no mention of this event, and Martin Windrow argues that the 'paratrooper putsch' is unlikely to have happened. Both Langlais and Bigeard were known to be on good relations with their commanding officer. Bigeard helped organize local counter-attack, having been placed in command of the camps counter-attacking force, and 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 reward 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 7 May 1954 and was repatriated three months later.
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 (10e DP). 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 an urban counter-insurgency operation in the city of Algiers to stop FLN terrorist attacks and to eliminate the organisation within the city. 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 Paracs 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 about its use and him testing it on his own body. 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. During this time, Bigeard's name was associated with the death flights carried out by members of Massu's 10e DP in the Battle of Algiers. The victims, who were dropped from aircraft into the Mediterranean Sea, were known as "Bigeard's shrimps" (French: crevettes Bigeard) because they had weights attached to their feet sending them straight to the bottom. [dead link]
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 of the FLN group Wilaya 4. This group had already attacked an Algerian Battalion on 21 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 100 km². The ensuing battle and followup lasted from 23 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)].
Bigeard was later 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 justified the use of torture during the Algerian War as a "necessary evil" in Le Monde newspaper, and confirmed its use. He also claimed that he had not personally used torture.
In 1967 Bigeard was promoted to Brigadier General and placed in command of ground forces in Dakar, Senegal. He commanded all forces in the French Indian Ocean Territory from 1970–1973. He was appointed State Secretary in Ministry of National Defence by President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing in 1975 and served until the following year, when he resigned from the army.
Bigeard died on 18 June 2010 at his home in Toul. He was accorded full military honours on 22 June in la cour d'honneur at Les Invalides. His last request to have his ashes scattered at Dien Bien Phu was denied by the Vietnamese Government who stated that they did not wish to create a precedent.
- Grand Cross of the Légion d'honneur
- Croix de Guerre 1939–1945
- Croix de guerre des Théatres d'Opérations Exterieures
- Croix de la Valeur Militaire
- Médaille de la Résistance
- Medaille des blessés (5 wounds)
- Distinguished Service Order (UK)
- Commander of the Legion of Merit (US)
- Grand officier du Mérite Sénégalais
- Grand officier du Mérite Togolais
- Grand officier du Mérite Comorien
- Grand officier du mérite Saoudite
- Officier du Million d'Eléphants du Laos
- Honorary Legionnaire de 1ère classe of the Foreign Legion
He was awarded a total of 25 citations, including 17 palmes.
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 Le 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.
The character of Pierre-Noel Raspeguy in the novels The Centurions and The Praetorians by Jean Larteguy is modeled largely on Bigeard, but also Paul Ducournau. In Lost Command, the 1966 movie adaptation of The Centurions, Raspeguy was played by Anthony Quinn.
During his career Bigeard authored or co-authored a number of books. In retirement he continued to write, his last work was published in 2010, a few months after he died.
- Contre guérilla (English: Counter 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 (English: My France is sore), Edition du Polygone, 2006
- Adieu ma France (English: Good-bye my France), Editions du Rocher, 2006 ISBN 2-268-05696-1
- Mon dernier round (English: My last show), Editions du Rocher, 2009 ISBN 2-268-06673-8
- Ma vie pour la France (English: My life for France), Editions du Rocher, 2010 ISBN 2-268-06435-2
Notes and references
- Horne 2006, p. 167.
- Singer, Barnett, p.269
- Windrow 2004, p. 237
- Windrow 2004, p. 551.
- Windrow 2004, p. 241
- Windrow 2004, p. 416
- Fall, Bernard B. (2002), Hell in a very small place: the siege of Dien Bien Phu, Da Capo Press, pp. 176â179, ISBN 978-0-306-81157-9
- Windrow 2004, pp. 441–444
- La vraie battaille d'alger, Jacques Massu, Librarie PLON, 1971
- Film testimony by Paul Teitgen, Jacques Duquesne and Hélie Denoix de Saint Marc on the INA archive website.
- 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
- Prise de tête Marcel Bigeard, un soldat propre ?, L'Humanité, June 24, 2000 (French)
- Pour une parcelle de gloire, Marcelle Bigeard, Librarie PLON, 1975, p 295
- Guerre d'Algérie : le général Bigeard et la pratique de la torture, Le Monde, July 4, 2000 (French)
- "Adieu mon general! Honneurs militaires au general Bigeard". Armee de Terre. 8 July 2010.
- "Vietnam rejects French officer's ashes request". BBC News. 27 Jul 2010.
- helicopters during the war in Algeria, Military History
- Internet Movie Database, Lost Command (1966). Retrieved on 11 February 2008.
- The American Conservative, French Lesson: Battle of Algiers by Steve Sailer . Retrieved on 11 February 2008.
Aussaresses, General Paul, The Battle of the Casbah: Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism in Algeria, 1955-1957. New York: Enigma Books, 2010. 978-1-929631-30-8.
- Fall, Bernard B. (1966), Hell in a very small place, Da Capo Press (published 2002), ISBN 978-0-306-81157-9;
- Horne, Alistair (1977), A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954–1962, New York Review Books (published 2006), ISBN 978-1-59017-218-6;
- Singer, Barnett; John Langdon (2004), Cultured Force: Makers and Defenders of the French Colonial Empire, The University of Wisconsin Press, ISBN 0-299-19904-5
- Windrow, Martin (2004), The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, ISBN 0-297-84671-X;
- (French) General Bigeard interview on the battle of Dien Bien Phu, 3 May 2004