I’ll See You Down There
Far away in what had once been French Indo-China, things were bad and getting worse. A large part of the Foreign Legion was desperately attempting to hold onto what little was left of France’s pre-war Far-Eastern empire.
Legion actions in fighting off the advancing grip of the local Viet Minh were magnificent. As early as 1950 the Foreign Legion were creating new legends of courage, stories to rival those of the Legion’s history in North Africa.
Because French Indochina was still being administered by Vichy France when Germany started its final collapse in Europe. Japan as the remaining Axis power took control in Indochina, to stop it going over to the Allies. That lasted until Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the Japanese surrender. The surrender of the Japanese in 1945 should have simply restored the French Indo-chinese empire, but things started badly and then got worse.
The returning French chose to ignore the Viet Minh’s leader Ho Chi Minh when they returned. Instead they tried to restore rule through Bao Dai, King of Annam. Bao Dai was not a good choice… or a good king. His people didn’t trust him or want him.
Mostly, they wanted Ho Chi Minh.
The Viet Minh were not the only people unhappy to see the French returning to the region, the USA was unhappy about it too. The Pacific Rim was American now by force of arms. It had cost a lot in lives and money to win this transient empire. Their intention was to keep out as much European colonial influence as they could.
They offered Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos) to the Chinese Nationalists. Chiang Kai-shek replied “under no circumstances!”
Chiang Kai-shek at this time controlled much of China, and at war’s end was able to send an army of 200,000 men into Indochina to enforce the Japanese surrender. While uninterested in long-term control of the region, he did at least force France and the Viet Minh leader Ho Chi Minh to reach a peace agreement.
By February 1946, Chiang Kai-shek had forced France to give up its remaining claims in China, in exchange for allowing them to re-occupy northern Indochina.
Ho on the other hand was not so easily put off. He declared a Democratic Republic of Vietnam, a move that caused British and French forces to intervene to re-establish French control.
Four years later, in 1950, Ho tried again, and this time his Democratic Republic was recognised by both Russia and Red China. The stage was now set for the First Indochina War. It would last four indecisive years, and would forge the army that Ho Chi Minh would need later.
In 1950 Viet Minh General Giap had already decided that he was strong enough to drive the French from Tonkin, to push them all the way back to the Red River. The Legion were all that stood between him and that dream.
The obvious defensive line that he needed to take for a start was the Kao Bang Ridge and to take that he needed to capture the fortified village of Dong-Khe. The village garrison was two companies of the Foreign Legion’s Third regiment.
Giap attacked with 10,000 men. They surrounded the village and began shelling. There were four bastions, strong points that guarded the corners of the village. The legion were over-run at all four of them, but re-captured one during the night… and finally lost it again.
Two legion companies cannot realistically resist 10,000 insurgents, even if the enemy had until recently been rice farmers. When they realised that their situation was untenable, the legionnaires fell back on tradition as much as training and formed up for a massed bayonet charge. As was inevitable, most of them fell, but a surprising handful made it through and actually reached other legion companies and safety.
The relief column that was fighting its way towards them had severe losses. The legion lost a total of two battalions in trying to hold on to one village. They lost control of Kao Bang Ridge and fought a fierce rear-guard action all the way to the Red River.
General Giap’s first dream had been fulfilled, and the legion had new legends to compensate for their lost men.
By 1954 the Viet Minh army had grown from a handful of guerrillas to become a modern, well-equipped and well-trained army. They had acquired skills at jungle fighting that the French unwisely failed to recognise until it was too late.
It was all leading to the last great battle of that Vietnam War. For Gottfried and his comrades, there was destined to be no victory parade at Dien Bien Phu. The Battle of Dien Bien Phu would be remembered as the Legion’s finest hour… and its greatest defeat.
Dien Bien Phu. March to May 1954
When Gottfried landed on the runway at Dien Bien Phu, two hundred miles inside territory held by the Viet Minh he looked around and for the first time in many years was heard to remark to no-one in particular…
“I shouldn’t have to say how silly this is… no not silly… stupid! Criminally stupid!”
Then like a good Legionnaire he stooped, picked up his pack and strode off to do whatever duty the arm-chair generals had dreamt up this time.
By this time he was a major in the Legion. It amused him to be a major. The Luftwaffe general had promised him that he would become at least a major. To Gott a major was an older soldier with only one eye and a slight limp. To the Legion a major was the highest rank of NCO. It appealed to Gottfried’s sense of the ridiculous that the prediction that he would make it to major would come true, but not in any way that the Luftwaffe general had anticipated!
Waiting for him at the base’s administrative headquarters were Harald and Sigi. They were keen to fill him in on how the war was going here in the jungle. But Gott had news of his own to tell them.
“I was at Sidi-bel-Abbes when orders came. We took a troop-ship through the Suez Canal to the Red Sea to get to the Indian Ocean. There was a wait of nearly a week to enter the canal. We were running low on fresh food, so they put in for a day in port to re-stock for the voyage. That’s really the only reason I was ashore at Sharm-al-Sheikh. It was an accident that I bought a newspaper! If I hadn’t bought a newspaper I might never have found out about Eliahu Itzkovitz.”
“Eliahu, what’s he been up to?” Harald asked, Eliahu wasn’t a man they expected to figure in the news.
They remembered the man, he had been a legionnaire in their company. He’d been involved in a bad bit of soldiering. Stanescu, another legionnaire, and also a Romanian like Eliahu, had got himself killed where he had no good reason to be killed.
Eliahu Itzkovitz had gained quite a reputation because he had refused to leave the body to be mutilated by the Viet. He had carried his dead comrade all the way back to his own lines for proper burial.
“He’s in an Israeli prison! After he was discharged from the Legion, he returned to Israel… and handed himself in!”
Gott had been waiting weeks to tell this story. It was still as incredible as it had been when he read the newspaper in a coffee shop by the Red Sea.
“But, what had he done? Oh yes, of course, I suppose he was a deserter from the Israeli Navy… He joined us in France. He’d come across from from Genoa. I remember his papers from when we signed him off last year… If the Israelis got him for desertion, they’ll have thrown away the key!” Harald said.
“No, no! That’s the thing… He only got one year! That’s all, one year!” Gott said.
“He’d also admitted murder! Though he called it an execution!”
“He killed someone?” Sigi asked, “In Israel… why would he kill someone in Israel, he didn’t know anyone. His family and relatives were all dead. He once told us that he had no-one, they all died in a camp.”
“No, not an Israeli, another Romanian. It was Stanescu… the legionnaire that he carried back. He said that it wasn’t the Viets who shot Stanescu… He shot Stanescu himself!”
Gott decided it would be best to start at the beginning.
“When Eliahu was a kid, his Jewish family were put in Chisinau, a concentration camp in Romania. Stanescu was a guard, a Romanian nazi. The kid watched Stanescu kill all his family. After the war, he joined the Israeli Army as a paratrooper. But then he heard that Stanescu was in the Foreign Legion, so he transferred to the Israeli navy, deserted in Genoa, crossed to France and joined us.”
He paused for breath. “He was searching for Stanescu!”
“When he heard that Stanescu was in French Indo-China he applied for a transfer to the 3rd Regiment and that’s where he found Stanescu. He waited till he had him on his own… and killed him!”
“Apparently, he told him why he was going to kill him… He said, “Stanescu, I am one of the Jews from Chisinau!” Then he shot him.”
“He carried the body home… because for all else that he was… Stanescu was still a Legionnaire!”
“So, that’s the story that he told to the Israeli Navy judges… murder and desertion. They must have believed him… that he had done it all simply to get close enough to a concentration camp guard to kill him. They basically said tut-tut, you have been a bad boy… and gave him just one year in prison!”
“He will soon be free again and in Israel he’s a hero… already a legend. Parents are naming sons after him.”
“I wish we could have told Gerhard,” Sigi said quietly “He would have approved.”
“He joined the Fallschirmjäger to avoid the SS.” Gott said. “He said he didn’t want to kill women and babies. I never really asked him why… Just mention of the SS upset him.”
“Yes” said Harald. “When he went up in the basket to do his first jump, he was absolutely terrified, but he said This is for my village!… and jumped anyway.”
“His village?” Sigi asked.
“His village was in Bavaria… Dachau!” Gott replied soberly. “His father was an electrician the SS had hired locally, to work in the camp… He killed himself later, just after Gerhard died.”
Gott was clearly upset, and it took a while for him to get his voice under control…
“I visited his mother a few years ago. She’s… a wreck… I’m glad Gerhard never saw what the SS were doing there… what his father must have seen every day… what they left for those people to live down.”
“When the Allies entered the camp, they paraded the local people through it… So that they could never say that they didn’t know what had gone on there. They would never be able to deny that it had happened in their village.”
“It was when his wife knew what had been happening… where he had been going to work… That was when his father hanged himself.”
“Crete was good to my Gerhard.” Gott said.
He paused for thought, and then…
“It was his mother who said that… about Crete having done him a favour… and her too. She said she couldn’t have coped with having to tell him why his father had killed himself… She said she was grateful to Crete.”
“When I left, she was just sitting there looking at a photograph of Gerhard and his father. Gerhard was in Jugend uniform. He was smiling and holding the letter that invited him to try for entry to the Napola. The SS proposed their electrician’s son. They wanted him for themselves… But, he joined us instead.”
Harald nodded seriously. “I knew there was something… After the major interviewed him at Stendal, he told me that Gerhard had good reason to avoid the SS… and he told me to be gentle with him! That struck me as very odd at the time, but now I see why he said it.”
Then… “I’m glad too that he didn’t make it back from Crete… He’d have done an Eliahu and gone looking for someone to kill. It was never going to end well, not from the moment he got his Napola letter… It could only ever end badly.”
Then he said, very quietly… only Sigi heard him, and closed his eyes for a moment…
“And, it had to be me that ended it for him.”
So, why you may reasonably ask were our boys now sitting in a death-trap in the middle of an Indo-Chinese jungle?
It had started badly, which was probably why the Legion had been sent. Only the Legion’s officers had French mothers who might hold the loss of their sons against the government. Everyone else in the Legion had a mother whose opinion was irrelevant… It was after all a Foreign Legion.
As early as July 1947 the general pattern for the Legion’s involvement was already set. A daring plan, a disaster and a Legion that did its duty.
Typical was the event at Phu Tong Hua, a key village in northern Tonkin. The Viet General Giap had thrown everything he had at the village. Held by just one company of the Legion’s third regiment, the overwhelming force at Giap’s command succeeded in taking three of the four corner bastions during a fierce night-time battle.
With all their officers dead, the NCOs led the Legionnaires in a desperate counter-attack, and succeeded in recapturing the fort. By dawn half of them were dead. But, the Legion held the fort once more.
When their regimental commander reached them with a relief column, they greeted him with a formal parade… in full ceremonial dress… the Kepi Blanc at its whitest and finest.
The situation our boys now found themselves in was by now irretrievable.
As Gott had observed, the defences of Dien Bien Phu were stupid. The location, 200 miles inside Viet controlled territory was stupid. That it was a vast concrete structure was stupid, and that it was overlooked all round by hills… was unpardonably stupid.
All this stupidity came about because by 1953 the Viet Minh were still refusing to be drawn into a set-piece battle. The French wanted to draw in the whole of General Giap’s army… and destroy it once and for all, using superior technology and manpower. But, Viet skills were in destructive skirmishing, and that was what they were sticking to.
The French needed a trap, a falsely vulnerable target that Gen. Giap would be unable to resist.
The plan was to draw the enemy to them using the remote airstrip at Dien Bien Phu. If the French could control it then they threatened Giap’s communications… Its re-capture by him would assure his victory. How could he resist?
The French would be ready for him.
In November 1953 the Legion parachuted in its 1st Parachute Batallion. Instantly, Dien Bien Phu was theirs. The trap was set. Paris expected to bring the Viet Minh to a killing zone.
Gottfried was now entering the killing zone. From the air as they came in to land Gottfied had seen the heavy fortifications, an Eben Emael style fortress, in the centre of a bowl shaped depression overlooked on virtually all sides by jungle.
Since mediaeval times, if you built a fortress then you built it on the top of a hill so that it commanded its surroundings. You didn’t build it where it was overlooked, where the enemy could look down into it.
That the site for the fortress was overlooked didn’t matter to Paris. They were only expecting rifle-fire, and that they could live with… the jungle was too far away for rifles to be accurate. Light mortars would be more of a problem, but Giap’s supply of ammunition was hundreds of miles away. Only heavy guns could be a real problem, and the clinching argument for their complacency was that Giap’s artillery was hundreds of miles away. He had no means of transport to bring it to the battle.
All Giap had, said the arm-chair generals in Paris… all he had were ill-equipped, ill-trained guerrilla infantry.
Just as in the First World War at Verdun, the French generals in Paris were waiting for the Viet infantry to throw themselves onto the concrete walls and be mown down by machine-gun fire. One day they would need to build an ossuary for the bones of the Viet infantry, as they had in Douamont for German bones.
The problem was that while the plan to break the German army on the walls of the fortress at Verdun had indeed killed an enormous number of men, it hadn’t killed enough to make a decisive difference. The strategy could only work if the supply of men were limited… Forty years on, it was the same plan, and Giap’s supply of men was virtually unlimited.
Gott knew the history of this concrete battleship beached in the jungle. It had started off as a sensible, cunning plan. The French commander, Major-General Cogny had intended to use the airfield as a lightly defended centre from which to run raids to cut off Viet Minh supply lines to Laos. That would force the Viet to react, drawing them to him.
His workable plan had then been altered in Paris. The new plan was to create an even tastier bait for Giap, an impregnable fortress. It was to be a war of attrition. With no artillery support, Viet infantry could not capture the fortress, but it was so valuable a prize that the Viet commanders couldn’t simply walk away.
Paris had learned nothing from two wars. It required a peculiarly rigid mind-set to plan a re-run of Flanders’ field… in a sub-tropical rain-forest! They had created a vast immovable asset. One of such value that they would have to defend it to the last man. Without realising what they had done, they had sprung their own trap… Now it was the French who could not simply walk away.
It would be held to the last man. Gottfried, Harald and Sigi and their legionnaire companions were those last men, or very nearly. There were still a few more to come.
In April, after landings on the runway were no longer possible, the Legion’s second parachute battalion arrived by jumping in… Gott envied them, there were so few opportunities to jump into a battle these days.
Two T’ai battalions, one Vietnamese and four French paratroop battalions together with Algerians and Moroccans were also fed into the trap.
It had taken a long time for it to become clear that the fortress of Dien Bien Phu only seemed to be impregnable.
The Viet Minh had needed heavy guns to make any impression on its defences, and they needed anti-aircraft guns to interdict the runways. The men in Paris felt safe because there were hundreds of miles between the Viet Minh artillery and Dien Bien Phu… hundreds of miles of dense jungle. The French had had a runway to fly their artillery in. The Viet Minh had no such luxury. If they wanted heavy guns then they would have to carry them in on the backs of men and mules.
The Viet Minh did exactly that, they carried their artillery in pieces, on the backs of men and mules. They achieved impossible feats of strength and endurance in appalling conditions of mud and jungle. The French weren’t expecting the impossible, so they weren’t watching for it. That was why they didn’t see it coming.
Viet General Vo now had almost unlimited manpower and determination. By the time the battle started the Viet outnumbered the French by four to one. They also had vastly more artillery and ammunition.
Now the flaws in the French plan became clear. They had air superiority and they had napalm. But, the Viet had rain and wet jungle. In the rain, napalm simply didn’t work and without napalm the Viet were virtually unreachable. They and their guns were hidden in the wet jungle, buried in tunnels, and readily moved from one camouflaged site to another. That their artillery could be moved would make it difficult to target with ground based artillery and virtually impossible to bomb from the air.
The French artillery meanwhile was largely fixed and out in the open. The Viet were on the surrounding hills, looking down into the fortress. The fort’s artillery were an open target.
It was to be a fixed artillery and infantry war… The French fortress’s commanding officer Colonel, now Brigadier General Christian De Castries was a brave and competent armoured warfare officer, experienced and capable at fast moving mobile warfare… So Paris gave him command of a siege.
All this was unknown to Gottfried as he landed. That the site was ill-chosen was obvious but it would be some days yet before what the jungle hid from them would become clear.
The jungle hid from them; a regiment of 105’s and 75’s. There were eighty anti-aircraft guns and a hundred 50-calibre anti-aircraft machine guns. Landing aircraft would become very risky if not impossible. When the Viet received more Russian 105’s and a number of multi-tube rocket launchers… Stalin-Organs, all the defenders could do was to start digging.
When they had the fortress completely surrounded the Viet too began digging trenches. Forty thousand men can dig an enormous number of siege-trenches, and as the circle grows smaller the trenches get closer… faster.
To the north, two strong-points Beatrice and Gabrielle were positioned to support the runway, a runway that was now unusable. It was at Beatrice that the Viet bombardment started in earnest. It killed Beatrice’s commander Lieutenant-Colonel Gaucher almost immediately.
The bombardment went on for two days. When the Viet guns suddenly fell silent the Legions defenders saw a green wall of Viet infantry suicidally running at them. French machine guns mowed them down, but their numbers were without limit, each dead man was replaced by another and the wall came nearer. The Viet dead on the French barbed wire enabled living Viet to climb over, while Viet artillery killed French and Viet alike.
Beatrice was lost. The Third Battalion was, to a man, dead or wounded. Within twenty four hours Gabrielle and its Algerian defenders were gone as well. There was now nothing between General Giap and the defenders of the main fortress.
The other strongpoint, to the south, Isabelle had always been largely irrelevant. Too far away to help, it was too valuable to abandon.
De Castries attempted to retake Beatrice but lacked the men needed for success.
The bombardment on Beatrice had started on March 12, on the night of the 16th the commander of the French artillery shot himself… in despair at what was now a clearly lost situation.
On March 28th the last plane made it onto the runway. It was to have removed wounded but never made it out again. It carried in nurse Genevieve de Galard-Tarraubes, a splendid name for a splendid woman. She survived the destruction of her plane, and stayed to the end, to achieve fame as the heroine of Dienbienphu. She was the only professional nurse in the fortress. But, she was not alone. The dozen girls of the now un-needed BMC mobile brothel changed profession and joined her in caring for the wounded. Genevieve was made an honorary Legionnaire First Class, an honor also extended to the Medical Officer Dr Grauwin .
The French had no more paratroopers left. But reinforcement by parachute continued. Men from all over the legion volunteered; drivers, clerks, cooks, even musicians. Complete mortar companies jumped… all of them in darkness, all of them jumping for the first time. As Harald had once told Gott and Sigi… “Anyone can parachute, the question is… can they jump?”
Surprisingly few of them were actually injured. Of the maybe a thousand men who left a perfectly serviceable aeroplane for no better reason than the comrades who were in trouble, only two broke an arm, three broke legs and a few sprained joints. It required only courage to jump into the darkness, and the Legion had chosen its cooks and typists well.
It would be wrong to forget that not all the legionnaires who jumped had been legionnaires for any great length of time. Fighting-men came from all over South East Asia to don a parachute. They became legionnaires just for the few days that remained to them.
The perimeter strong points now began to fall one after another. The Viet dug their siege-trenches closer and closer, until all it required was to shove bangalore-torpedoes through the gun slits. Men would almost certainly die doing it, but the gun emplacement would equally certainly be destroyed.
By May, the public in Paris, and around the world understood the stupidity of what had been done. Desperate plans were discussed publicly… Perhaps the USA could send massive air-strikes to destroy all life in the jungle around the fortress?
No, was the firm answer. This was not yet America’s Vietnam war. The USA preferred to see peace return to the region… It was not yet America’s turn to do stupid things in Vietnam. Their turn would come, and when it did, France and Europe would look back on Dien Bien Phu, and France in particular would have no reason to look upon America as an ally in trouble.
Paris was still encouraging De Castries to hold on. Actually, there was very little encouragement involved. De Castries was ordered to fight on, to not surrender. Like an honorable Frenchman should, he obeyed orders.
De Castries was a good leader of men. Despite his own inevitable despair he did more than sit in his bunker waiting for the end. He found time for his men, to encourage the ones not yet wounded and to visit the sick and dying. He found time for niceties… He visited the muddy bunker where the sick bay and operating-theatre were, to award the Croix de Guerre and Legion d’Honneur to nurse Genevieve. He spoke encouragingly to every man and the very few women, and then returned to his headquarters.
It was the last day. By now, the perimeter had shrunk to just a few hundred metres.
Col. Andre Lalande, known to his men as Barouder, “the brawler”, commanded the strongpoint Isabelle to the south. He now watched with horrified fascination through binoculars as the fortress met its end.
He was not alone as an impotent onlooker. French pilots circled overhead, unable to do more than watch… “It was like watching… a spectacle… in a Roman amphitheatre” one of the pilots said later.
Sick and dying men began to appear in a ragged procession at the sickbay. The doctor recognised them as the wounded from the perimeter strongpoints. The Viets were not worrying about the French wounded. When they captured them, they simply sent them back into the fortress, to join their as yet un-surrendered comrades.
Our young men were no better off than anyone else. Harald was was clearly exhausted when he appeared out of the smoke and noise, looking for Gott and Sigi. Shouting to be heard above the noise of battle, a battle that was now never more than tens of yards away, he was the bearer of bad news…
“It’s over. They’re going to fire the demolition charges, and then raise a white flag and surrender. They think the Viet will accept a surrender.” He was clearly distraught. Nothing in his training or experience had prepared him for this moment. This was worse even than the defeat in 1945. Then there had then been a slight satisfaction in knowing that defeat was ending a tragic chapter in German history.
This was simply defeat at the hands of a merciless enemy, in the rain and mud of a country that no-one in their right mind should have wanted in the first place, and in defence of a fortress that only idiots could have built.
This was simply… defeat.
“Unless someone has an alternative, all that is left is to die with honor, there is nothing else left do… and they won’t even allow us that.” He sounded in despair.
That the Legion should surrender was unthinkable. That they should end up in a Viet Minh POW camp was not what a Fallschirmjäger could see as an acceptable outcome either.
“So, what shall we do? I don’t fancy ending up with the Viet!” Sigi asked. “I don’t like their cooking.” He added with a weak attempt at humour.
“My thinking is… If we stay, the chances of surviving are slim. The Viet aren’t famous for their hospitality.” Gott paused, to ensure that he had the attention of the men around him.
Almost to a man they were Germans and many of them were of the Stendal Jugend generation. They listened quietly. If anyone was going to come up with an alternative it was perhaps Gottfried.
“I think we should walk out… a silent break-out, before the surrender… After the surrender the Viet can accuse us of breaking the surrender terms and shoot us. Before the surrender the Legion could shoot us… for desertion” more gallows’ humour, “But I don’t think they will!”
He went on…“As soon as we are certain that a surrender is about to happen, as many of us as we can organise should make a run for it. How soon is the surrender?”
Gott was living up to the Luftwaffe’s expectations… This was the moment that he had been preparing for all his life.
This was his moment… He was either going to save them or get them killed.
“It’s minutes away, less than an hour. Headquarters staff are burning documents and the demolition charges have been armed. I heard Sparks, the radio operator, sending messages in clear…” Harald paused.
He swallowed, and there was a tremble in his voice as he repeated what he had heard.
“Sparks said, “Breakout failed. We must break communications with you. We are going to blow up everything. Fini, repeat fini. Au revoir”.”
“Then he shut down the radio and walked away… We only have minutes to decide.”
Harald paused for a decision, then… “I’m going with Gott.” He said it with no great emphasis. It was all that was left to do.
“We can’t carry anything, just side arms. We need to be silent and fast. We can only get away if no one spots us. The moment you are spotted… surrender. There are far too many of them for you to be able to hide.” Gott issued orders. He knew that men are more comfortable following orders than they are doing what obviously needs to be done. Even obvious orders are better than none.
“That’s OK, there’s nothing to carry anyway…” Sigi said with a grin, relieved to be doing something, to have orders to follow.
“Take some water and a few rounds of ammunition… just make sure you have your water-bottle!”
“Well, no time like the present…” Gott said. “Go!” He might have been standing in a basket high above Stendal.
To underline his words there came a series of huge explosions. The demolition charges. The fortress of DienBienPhu was ceasing to exist.
The noise and chaos as debris fell from the sky created the distraction they needed.
Gott led the way, he dropped into a Viet assault trench that the advancing enemy had already used and vacated, and ran…
They ran through empty siege trenches, wondering why there were no Viet to stop them.
They ran until the noise faded behind them.
They had had no plan… they hadn’t needed one. Luck had been their plan.
As dusk settled on the jungle and our group made use of what little shelter they could find, Gott remarked…
“Well, I think we are Fallschirmjäger again… The Legion fights till the last man, but the Fallschirmjäger walk home. From here to the border we shall have to be jumpers again.”
“I’m not sure about the jäger part. I feel more hunted than hunter!” Sigi said with another weak effort at humour. Gott thought him an asset to have with you in a tight corner. It amused him to think that a burial party would wonder what they had all been smiling at.
Then he went to sleep. Tomorrow they would start the walk proper.
Gott reckoned they were at least ten days away from the Laos border and a degree of safety… perhaps further than that from help and food.
It was much longer than that and turned out to be a dreadful journey. Leeches, bad water, hostile natives and little food.
The men had died or become separated one by one, until finally all that were left were our three; Harald, Gott and Sigi.
Sigi died in Gott’s arms. Gott had more or less carried him five miles that day. As night fell, Sigi had said quietly, “I can’t go on… Leave me my pistol in the morning. I shan’t make it this time. Get Harald out… for me. Get him out.”
Then he went quietly to sleep.
Gott held him all night and as the sun rose, as the noise of birds and insects began to make Sigi restless, Gott kissed his forehead, took his pistol and while Sigi slept, he shot him through the temple. There was no warning, no fear, no release just… a sharp noise that echoed around the trees, the birds startled into silence, immediately started up once again.
Sigi’s struggle was over.
Harald was woken by the noise. He saw Gott with his pistol smoking in his hand and tears streaming down his face.
What had happened… what Gott had done… was obvious.
To Harald who had himself barely survived the previous day, it was clear that it was the right thing to have done. Harald couldn’t have done it himself, but he would forever be grateful that Gott had the strength to do it for him. It was infinitely kinder than to have left Sigi with the pistol he had asked for, leaving him to find the courage and strength to end it himself… alone.
They left him, as if sleeping peacefully, against the tree where he had lain that night in Gott’s arms. They didn’t have the strength to bury him. They needed their last reserves for the final battle with the jungle.
It took them another three days. They had water from the rain and they knew that even in their weakened state they could survive about a week more without food, if they had to. It wasn’t hunger or thirst that would kill them. If it happened it would be pure exhaustion… or perhaps jungle sores…
It was exhaustion that would get them first. As they approached the Laotian border they abandoned all their kit and were crawling on hands and knees. It takes a lot longer, but it’s surprising how far you can crawl if you really have to.
They made it… just.
Men watched as Harald and Gott crawled the last mile towards the Laotian border.
At first they wondered what they were seeing. Were the slow moving men on hands and knees Viet-Minh attempting a covert incursion? The watchers were men from the Legion, waiting for survivors, scanning the edge of the jungle with binoculars.
Then they realised that they were watching legionnaires crawling home. Harald and Gott, for their part, didn’t see their rescuers until they were almost on them. When Gott realised that they had reached safety, in a final attempt at dignity and pride, he supported himself on Harald’s shoulder and staggered to his feet.
He leaned down to help Harald to stand. But, Harald, twelve years older than Gott, was slumped on the ground. The years that had mattered so much when Gott was 15, and had mattered almost not at all ten years later, were now defeating Harald. He sat waiting for the officer and medical orderly who were running towards them.
They got Harald to his feet. The medical orderly took one of Harald’s arms. Gott took the other and refused to let go, refusing even to allow another orderly to help. The officer, a little non-plussed took Gott’s other arm and held him up while Gott held Harald.
Then, arms around each other, the small group walked, unsteadily but with immense dignity, towards the encampment of the men who had come to rescue them.
The rest of the Legionnaires abandoned their posts and ran forward to carry them to safety.
Gott and Harald then faced the senior officer, straightened, and saluted him.
“We have returned from Dien Bien Phu. Reporting for duty.” Gott said… and Harald once again collapsed.
The Legion had another legend, another story to tell to recruits.
They would eventually both receive the Croix de Guerre, from the hands of the President himself. But that would not happen for some months yet. France required her heroes to be presentable as well as alive.
Ever afterwards Gott would refer to Harald as “my older comrade”. It was a joking reference to the citation for his Croix de Guerre. While Harald’s referred to his courage and endurance, Gott’s spoke in addition of “the loyalty with which he supported his older comrade”.
Harald was less than amused, but always smiled.
Meanwhile, when the news of the disaster broke in Sidi-bel-Abbas, a regrettably necessary and solemn parade had taken place. The bugler went to the parade ground and sounded the call… Aux Morts. The legionnaires dropped what they were doing and hurried to parade. They feared that they knew what it meant.
Colonel Gardy read the order of the day…
“We are gathered here to commemorate the heroes who fell in that epic struggle. Let us honour the units that have disappeared in battle:The 13th Half Brigade, its first and third battalions.The first battalion of the Second LegionThe first and second Foreign Paratroop BattalionsThe mortar companies of the third and fifth LegionsThe many volunteers who dropped into the fortress…”
The list went on and on, but the girls of the BMC were not mentioned.
At first, the medical officers weren’t certain that Gott and Harald would survive. More in hope than expectation, they arranged their evacuation back to Saigon. There, over the next four months they slowly recovered, but not fully. It left the Legion with a problem. They were fit enough to serve but not as experienced NCO’s. It appeared to the medical staff that they were never again going to be fit enough to act as role models for younger men.
They had signed up with the Foreign Legion in the autumn of 1945, for ten years. The Legion decided that as their ten year terms were nearly up, it would be best for them to be returned back to France, given medals and demobbed there.
That was quite a trip. It was a French ship, and at every port they stopped at the pair had to become used to being feted as heroes. given medals and civic dinners. Then they reached Paris, rested, received medals from the President, were given travel warrants and were sent on their way with the small pension that was due to them.
Their service with France’s Foreign Legion ended only slightly less abruptly than it had begun.
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