The Legion is proud of its tradition of being the pioneers and builders of the French Army. The first permanent headquarters of the Legion was in Sidi Bel Abbas in Algeria. Traditionally, virtually since its creation, the Legion served overseas in the French colonies in Africa and Asia. In addition to being part of the French military presence, along with the rifle the Legionnaires have carried the pick and the axe used to construct the infrastructures necessary for development in these far off lands.
The 6th REI (regiment etrangere d’infanterie [foreign infantry regiment]) certainly exemplifies the tradition. The regiment was originally commissioned in 1939 in the former French colony of Syria, as the 6th Eastern Mediterranean Regiment. The regiment subsequently served in Tunisia and Algeria and in the war in Indochina in 1955, after which it was dismantled. It was re-established in 1978 as the 6th REG (regiment etranger de genie [foreign engineer regiment]) and later redesignated the 1st REG.
In recent years the 1st REG has been involved in peacekeeping missions worldwide, where its primary job is de-mining and munitions-disposal operations as well as construction work (see “The Legion in Afghanistan,” SOF, September 2005). But the regiment has not forgotten its original vocation as assault engineers, a spearhead commando force used for infiltration, reconnaissance and destruction of enemy installations. With this goal in mind the regiment’s 1st Company, specialized in amphibious operations, has created a three-week training session to hone their combat skills and gain expertise in water-borne operations. Those who successfully complete the course are awarded the regiment’s Amphibious Combat Badge.
During the first two weeks of the course the Legionnaires, especially those new to the company, familiarize themselves with the equipment and techniques necessary to carry out their mission. Training is done with hand-propelled and motorized Zodiacs, combat kayaks, and combat swimming. An amphibious obstacle course is used to test proficiency in the water and to build stamina. Live fire and explosives exercises, navigation, communication, rappelling, river crossing, camouflage and use of night vision equipment are also studied. This is to ready the men for a special non-stop two-day mission where the training is put to practice under simulated combat conditions.
The “raid” begins with an all day march which will lead the group to the cliffs overlooking the Rhone River. Under cover of darkness, the main attack force rappels down into Zodiac rafts waiting below as reconnaissance teams swim across the river using swim fins and snorkels. When the combat swimmers have secured and marked the landing places, the Zodiacs arrive and combat groups debark, each with a specific program of obstacles to overcome and goals to reach. The missions include destruction of communications and power-generation installations, sentry elimination, control of transportation routes, attacks on isolated posts, reconnaissance and marking of debarkation points, and so on.
Working through the night, the groups have to complete their objectives and be back across the river by dawn. After regrouping at designated rendezvous points, they make their way back to base camp for debriefing and evaluation. Those who have successfully completed the requirements are awarded the Amphibious Combat Badge by the regimental commanding officer later that day.
Lt. François Perrier, one of the officers conducting the exercise, remarked, “Overall the exercise went pretty well, although there are always mistakes that we have to work out. But that’s what this is for. What’s good about this type of training is that the men are out in the field for three weeks, working together without any distractions, which helps to build teamwork. Also with a large scale operation like this we can get together a lot of different materiel which we don’t always have available and the soldiers get the feel for what a major military operation could involve. Pushing them to the limit of exhaustion and requiring them to think, to react, to solve problems and follow the mission program is an excellent way of preparing these Legionnaires for the rigors of actual combat.”