Green berets attacking the outskirts of Kolwezi on this friday the 19th of may 1978. The soldier on the right side is using a belgian FAL captured on site
Picture from the forum paras
As soon as the Zaïre, former belgian Congo, became independant the Katanga region tried to secede. Backed by european interests, the rebels are reinforced by mercenaries lead by the infamous BoB Denard and Jean Schramme during the 60s.
Resisting the loyalist army and the UN mission deployed in urgency to prevent the wholde country from bursting, they will finaly be forced to flea after more than two years fighting and the Katanga region rejoin the Zaïre under the name of Shaba.
Mercenaries fighting during the Katanga insurrection
After Katanga came back around to Zaïre, the Mining Union of Upper-Katanga, which was nationalized during the independance became Gécamines in 1972. The belgian, thrown off the society's commity, are called back with other europeans when Zaïre president Mobutu gave back 40% of the company to it's former owners after the local engineers and foremen proved unable to maintain the mines.
In the civil war ridden neighbouring country of Angola, the droved away Katanga secessionists want their revenge. The Shaba region is primordial to them because of the rich soils.
Major Erick Bonde from the UN swedish blue helmets detachment in Zaïre smoking a cigarette after being shot in the chest and the arm after fighting the rebels
In Angola, the former Katanga gendarmes regroup into the National Congo Liberation Front, or FNLC, lead by soviet bloc military advisors.
They try to take back the Shaba a first time in 1977 but are stopped dead in their tracks by a Moroccan division, called to help by Mobutu and flewn by french Transalls. This will be the lesson learned for their second attempt, this time making all the newspapers front pages.
They refuse to capitulate and on the 11th of may 1978, multiple elements leave Angola towards their objective Kolwezi, preceded by recon groups. All of them now wear on their disparate uniforms the Katanga "tigers" insigna.
"Tigers" insigna, former gendarmes and fresh recruits
Chaos in the streets. I will not share pictures of the multiple exactions that took place there, neither of the mass graves; you can find those pretty easily online if you want to see evil
Picture from alamy
City of a hundred thousand inhabitants, Kolwezi became during the span of two weeks the site of a bloody horror on this spring of 78. The Katanga "tigers", former gendarmes of the Katanga, will unleash mayhem on the city, killing both locals and europeans.
Lead by their commander, Colonel Erulin, the men from the REP drop from C-130s and C-160s on the 19th of may. As soon as they set foot on the ground intense firefights erupts. Toughly trained, the légionnaires are proficient in close quarter and street combat and they move swiftly and aggressively against the rebels.
Capitaine Poule's 1st Company is assigned the old town in the south and it's primary objective, the Jean XXIII high school; Capitaine Dubos' 2nd Company is in charge of the hospital and factories of the Gécamines complex in the West; Capitaine Gausserès' 3rd Company is tasked with taking the african district and the new town split by the railroad.
Erulin's paras waiting on the drop in the US T-10 parachutes tinkered with wire to hold the equipment
Picture from paras
The french paras spitting lead through their AAN52 LMG on the heights of the town
Firefights rage all along the city. At nighfall a first assessment is taken, all the primary objectives are controlled by the french and Colonel Erulin chooses to delay the second wave until next morning.
The Technical school and the gendarmerie are retaken, in the jails 26 hostages are recovered alive including belgian and french but also italians and americans. In Jean XXIII high school's cellars it's a hundred europeans that are freed by the paras. In the South a rebel CP is taken, some heavy guns are ceased but primarely some maps and intel papers suggesting that Kolwezi is only the first objective of the "tigers" that aimed to take Likasi and Lubumbashi next with the core of their troops that eventually fled back to Angola when they saw the paratroopers drop.
In the city, all the important crossroads are under french control that confiscate over a thousand light armament after destroying two armoured cars and neutralizing a hundred "tigers".
The day after the french dropped, 1100 belgian paratroopers land at the airports outside of Kolwezi while a second wave of Légionnaires jump out of their airplanes.
Belgian are cristal clear, their mission is humanitarian and they will not getinvolved in the fightings. The troops are given orders to avoid the rebels and to retreat instead of getting into combat in case of encounter.
Belgian paras in town, they were given orders to not engage the rebels
Picture from alamy
Civilian families are taken to the airport to leave the country
2nd REP jeeps in front of the Gécamines facilities
Picture from ECPAD
A first attempt to take back the city
Alerted by the Gécamines mine employees, the belgian and french governments are made aware fairly soon of the situation but choose to delay a military action because president Mobutu assured them that he is able to take back control of the area soon.
On tuesday the 16th, a Zaïre military operation is underway with an armored unit converging towards the city from Lubumbashi and a paratroopers drop. It's a disaster and as soon as they land, most of the troops are slaughtered. Only the small airport is retaken near the city by the armored unit despite its numerous casualties.
In France, the government is still not taking action, since 4 days the ambassador André Ross and Colonels Larzul and Gras posted in Kinshasa phone the Elysée multiple times, pleading for a military operation; massacres are still taking place.
Finally, in the morning of the 17th of may, Colonel Erulin, commanding the 2nd foreign paratroopers régiment hangs the phone; they now are in 6 hours prior notice alert. Soldiers in training or free time are called back to the baracks, equipments are packed, ready to go.
In a few hours, the légionnaires embark into some UTA DC-8s in Solenzara towards Kinshasa, followed by cargo planes filled with gear.
Pretty soon, the incoming secret operation is leaked, first by french left wing unionists whom transmit the flight plans to communists backed rebellions in Africa and then the belgian prime minister Leo Tindemans on live television noticing the departure of 1100 belgian paratroopers to Kolwesi.
Losing the element of surprise, the paras need to act quickly moreso that the Katanga "tigers" commander told them by radio to execute all the hostages before fleeing, message intercepted by the Zaïre intelligence services.
Légionnaires boarding a Union des Transports Aériens plane towards Zaïre. Note the presence to the far right of the picture of General Lacaze, commanding the 11th Parachute Brigade
At 15h40, the first wave of 400 green berets jump from the planes
Thousands of rifles and smgs are ceased, a lot were destroyed on site and some were transfered to the military facility of Canjuers for identification and training purposes
Picture from paras
Resistance is rooted out of the city during the first days of combat
Picture from paras
In only one morning, on the 13th of may, the "Tigers" take control of the city from the Zaïre army that fled from the harshness of the combat. Only a few resistance pockets remain in some buildings and a few kilometers East of the european district where the command post regrouped.
A red dawn rise up over the city the next day, sunday the 14th when most of the rebel troops leave Kolwezi with the cuban military advisors.
Left without commanders, the "tigers" in town start to pillage the villas and to round-up civilians to execute them in the deserted streets.
Against the french command that deems it being a defeat, the belgian evacuate every europeans from the city and on sunday the 21st, nearly all the expats are taken out of the country by the US 82nd Airborne Division airlift.
On the ground, relations between the french and belgians are cloudy.
The french take the fight to the rebels and the next days they start to hunt those who scattered in the surrounding bush. Patrols on foot and Jeeps are send tirelessly and fighting continues.
The new french issued precision rifle FR-F1 shows its capabilities during the combat and draws bloody furrows in the rebels ranks that attempt a counter-offensive on saturday the 20th with a hundred troops and heavy weapons to take the Metal Shaba railway station five kilometers from the city. They are repelled and wiped out by Capitaine Grail's Company, reinforced by Capitaine Halbert's Reconnaissance Company, leaving behind sixty casualties.
81mm mortar firing during the bush fightings
Picture from 2REP
FR-F1 precision rifles that proved very efficient during patrols and street combats
Picture from paras
In two days and more than 6000km from base, the foreign Légion paratroopers manage to take back the occupied city, liberating nearly two thousand european hostages and a great number of local civilians.
They will pay the price of blood, loosing five of their own in the fights, inflicting more than three hundred casualties to the ennemy.
Civilians paid a hefty price, 131 expats will die as well as 160 locals, hundreds of them are still missing and their fate unknown.
Colonel Erulin, commanding the 2nd REP in Kolwezi during the ceremony where the regiment is cited to the Order of the Army
Picture from paras
I absolutely must mention six french soldiers, forgotten during this tragic event. In the city on the 13th of may during the initial take of the city by 4000 rebels as special military advisors, they were taken prisonners and disappeared without a trace, most likely executed.
At this day they were never found and are considred killed in action. For their service they were awarded the Legion d'Honneur for two of them and the Military Medal for the four others.
Never forget them.