We head west after leaving the 13 Demi Brigade Légion Etrangere (DBLE), the Legion’s main base in Djibouti City. The National Route No. 1 which we are on is the lifeline of the country, the main commercial artery for transport of goods from neighboring Ethiopia to the port of Djibouti. We pass through a couple of villages, past truck stops and depots, isolated points on a barren map. After about forty kilometers or so, we turn off the paved highway, leaving the small vein of human activity, and take a dirt track heading north across a broad stretch of desert. As we follow the dusty road deeper into the tough, arid landscape, I spot a few tents and the occasional herder with his flocks, the only inhabitants in this austere region.
The Centre d’Entrainement Commando Arta Plage (CECAP), the French Foreign Legion commando training center, lies due north, on the south shore of the Gulf of Tadjoura, an arm of the Red Sea. As we cross the dusty plain, craggy hills appear on both sides and we continue across the sand and rock until we reach Oued Der Ela, a dry river bed that cuts through the mountains, creating a narrow path to the sea. The only indicators of civilization are the kilometer signs that mark our progress and an occasional pyramid of stones painted red and green, the colors of the Legion. Once out of the magnificent gorge of dry rock, we cross a flat plain with only a few kilometers remaining until we reach the sea and the CECAP. Suddenly, painted on the side of the cliff, I spot an immense skull and crossed bones with the inscription “Voie de l’Inconscient” marking the location of the formidable commando obstacle course. To the US Marines who went through the training center last year, it was “Hell’s Way.” The steel cables and concrete blocks attached to the sheer rock cliff make up the dozen obstacles for which Arta Plage has gained a reputation as being one of the most difficult and challenging commando schools in the world.
DESERT AND SEA TRAINING GROUNDS
For over a hundred and fifty years, French troops have been present in the strategically located country of Djibouti. The 13 Demi-Brigade de la Legion Etrangère, created in 1940 as part of the Free French forces during World War II, was permanently stationed here in 1962. The Legion used the Arta Plage area for training from the beginning. The isolated area, with good access to the sea, is ideal for amphibious maneuvers and the rough terrain excellent for desert training. As time went on, solid structures replaced tents and, under the direction of the legionnaire Sgt. Cavagna, the commando courses were set up.
The center was officially established and authorized to issue the prestigious Arta Plage Commando qualification badge in 1982. Since then, the center has evolved and acquired a solid expertise in training troops for combat in desert conditions and amphibious operations. Today the training center comprises over twenty structures. The facilities in the main building include the captain’s office, a dining area and recreation room for the instructors, the communications center, and the kitchens. On either side are maintenance shops, the infirmary, staff quarters and storage facilities. Behind are open air cabins for the trainees and the electrical generators and water purification facilities. These accommodations make the center capable of several weeks of autonomous operation.
DO OR DIE
Upon arrival at Arta Plage, the soldiers are put through a series of physical tests to determine if they are prepared to handle the three weeks of rigorous training which lie ahead of them. The test includes push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups, squats, an upper-body rope climb and mile run. Also a 200-meter swim with weapon, where the soldier must drop the rifle in about ten feet of water, dive down and retrieve it and return to shore. Normally out of a platoon-size group of 40 soldiers of a well-trained active combat-ready unit, four or five fail the entrance test.
Capt. Le Bihan, officer in command of the center, explains, “This is a really difficult training course here at the CECAP and it can be dangerous if certain precautions aren’t taken. Our first and foremost priority is the safety of the participants. The first thing is to make sure that they are physically and mentally prepared to handle the course. So we begin with a barrage of tests as a way of avoiding injuries and accidents later on during the school.”
Other security measures include the presence of a medical officer and a Legion medic. Radio contact with the 13th DBLE main base is maintained in case of serious injury where evacuation by helicopter would be called for.
GRUELING TRAINING MODULES
The program at the CECAP is built around five training modules.
– Amphibious: swimming equipped with fins, infiltration access by water, reconnaissance and marking of landing beaches, Zodiac boat beach assaults, water drops from helicopters.
– Platoon-level tactics: Attacking, entering, and securing of buildings, fire support, movement through hostile territory, evacuation of wounded, night ops, ambushes, etc.
– Combat in rough terrain: Rappelling, rope work for building bridges, overcoming obstacles.
– Survival training: Camouflage and concealment, aquatic survival, navigation, improvised explosives, hand-to-hand combat, etc.
– Armored vehicles: Debarking, combat with co-coordinated armor support.
The procedures and operations carried on during the school will incorporate aspects of the five modules into synthesized training exercises.
MULTIPLE COMBAT COURSES
The school includes three different combat obstacle courses, two of which—a mountain track and a water track—are group exercises with an emphasis on teamwork. The other obstacle track, the formidable “Voie de l’inconscient,” or “Hell’s Way,” is an individual course. During the first week the soldiers become familiar with each obstacle and work on developing the skills required to get through in the least amount of time. To negotiate the group tracks, the squad has to work together as a team in a coordinated effort in order to accomplish each objective. During the last week of the school they will have to run the course against the clock, carrying weapon and pack. Their final score will, in part, be determined by the results of the final time trial.
In addition to the difficult physical training, the CECAP prepares the soldiers in the technical aspects of high intensity combat. The afternoons are usually reserved for classes in desert camouflage, explosives, first aid, squad formation on water and land, land navigation skills, knot tying for rope bridges, desert and water survival and hand-to-hand combat. As these skills are learned, they are applied during field training sessions. The classroom training and rest periods are carried out at regular intervals to allow the men to recuperate after the activities requiring sustained physical effort.
The school emphasizes individual weapons training with live fire exercises on the rifle range and in simulated combat situations such as ambushes, debarkation from rafts or armored vehicles, and evacuation of wounded under fire, etc. Here the goal is to coordinate firepower for maximum effect and develop the reflexes needed for efficiency in combat.
At the end of the program, the trainees are sent out on a three-day operation where they put the skills learned during the training into practical use. To reach their objectives they have to overcome obstacles, navigate through miles of rough terrain, deploy for combat, regroup, reconnoiter with helicopters or surface vessels and continue on, both day and night. Once the missions are accomplished, they return to the training center to receive the coveted Arta Plage Commando qualification badge.
TWO DECADES OF COMMANDO PREP
In March 2002 CECAP celebrated its twentieth anniversary. At present the center receives and trains about 400 commandos a year. Most are members of the French forces posted in Djibouti. The majority are from Legion units on attachment to the 13th DBLE; others include the French and Djibouti Army units and French Air Force pilots who go through a special two-week pro gram designed for pilot survival.
In November 2002, American soldiers and marines were received at the school for the first time. The group, composed of US Army Rangers and US Marines, members of the Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa stationed at Camp Lemonier, Djibouti, went through the training alongside a group of legionnaires from the 1st REG, the Legion’s combat engineer regiment.
Out of the 34 American soldiers and marines who began the school, 25 succeeded and now wear the CECAP badge on their uniforms.
AMERICANS PREPARE FOR WAR ON TERROR
Some of the Americans who participated in the training give their opinion:
According to Army Master Sgt. Chris Fields, “The reason for attending the French Commando School was to better prepare the soldiers and marines for nautical and mountain warfare challenges in the terrain of Djibouti. These particular challenges trained each soldier and marine for a hostile situation if one occurred in an area similar to this region.”
“Through the course, the French instructors’ methods of instruction and practical applications were set up very well,” said Fields. “As we got physically tired and weary in our upper body, the classes moved to movements and strengthening in the lower body ... in between were classes based on knowledge. Their instructions and exercises were scheduled evenly throughout the course.”
“Overall, I think everybody did extremely well in the course,” commented Fields. “The challenges they faced in this course were some they will never meet again. Later on in these now Commandos’ lives, whether in the military or as a civilian, if they are faced with troubled times, it will be less of a challenge to them to overcome it.”
Fields went on to say the training with the French is essential to the mission in the Horn of Africa of detecting, deterring and defeating trans-national terrorists in the region.
“It enhances our operations and gives us the ability to see real world situations in an environment we are not as familiar with as the French are. It is imperative that if we are to fight together as allies, we must train together in this war on terrorism.”
“It was one of the hardest training operations I’ve faced, but at the same time one of the better schools I’ve been through,” said Lance Cpl. Bryan Napier, who graduated in the top five of his class. “I feel honored to represent the American platoon in the top five. It will definitely be an experience to remember.”
A HUNGARIAN SEEKS ADVENTURE
Corporal Imre Andras is near the end of his two-year assignment as an instructor at Arta Plage. His enlistment in the French Foreign Legion began at the Legion recruitment office in Strasbourg, the capital of the Alsace region of France.
“Things were OK back home in Hungary. I was working at different small jobs, but I wanted to do something different. Something more exciting, more of an adventure. I had heard about the Legion and had spoken with a couple guys who had been in. Finally I gathered up my courage and decided to give it a try. So one day I bought a train ticket and set off for Strasbourg, the nearest French city. When I arrived at the station, I got a taxi, and using what English and the little French I knew, explained to the driver what I wanted. He dropped me off in front of the Legion recruitment office at the regional military headquarters, the “Quartier Lecourbe.”
THE LEGION IS FOR THE LION HEARTED
I was shown a film and given information in Hungarian as to what we could expect in enlisting and the different possibilities they offered. In brief what it was all about. We all went through a preliminary medical exam and those who were selected and still sure they wanted to enlist were put on a train and sent to Legion Headquarters in Aubagne in the south of France. I spent three weeks there going through tests and selection procedures before being
sent to basic training at 4th Legion Regiment based at Castelnaudary.”
“I did pretty well at basic, so I had a choice as to where I would go, so I choose the 2nd REP, the Legion paratroop regiment. At Calvi, 2nd REP Headquarters, I was attached to the 2nd Company, the mountain company, specialized in rough terrain combat and winter conditions. I served eight years with the “2nd” and was ski and Alpine qualified.
When I finished the 2nd degree of Command School, the instructor-level certificate, I applied for a post here at Arta Plage.”
“At the CECAP my specialty is climbing techniques, rappelling and rope work, whatever has to do with mountain combat. But here at the center we are all cross-trained so we can replace another instructor if need be or just as a change of pace to break up the routine.”
“All in all, I’m glad I spent two years here. We’ve got a good team of instructors and relations with the soldiers who come to the school have been excellent. You know we’re not here to give them a hard time or to break them. We want them to do their best, to succeed and try to help them as much as we can. There’s a lot of satisfaction seeing them graduate and proud that they’ve earned the right to wear the CECAP Commando badge.”
Photo-journalist Richard Lucas is a frequent contributor to SOF Magazine. He has covered conflict situations in Africa, the Balkans, Middle East and Asia. Contact: lucasvision.com or rlucasphotography.com.