A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

For D-Day: Remembering a Decorated Moroccan Regiment in the Liberation of France

Emblem, 1er Spahis Marocains
Today is the 68th Anniversary of the D-Day Landings in Normandy. Usually when we talk of World War II, even the North African campaigns, the fighting in Syria and Lebanon, the interventions in Iraq and Iran, we picture Europeans fighting in Middle Eastern countries, and rarely think of Middle Easterners unless it is Anwar Sadat being arrested for links to a German spy, or Moshe Dayan losing an eye fighting against Vichy in Lebanon. Not only do we forget the many French colonials who fought in the Free French Forces, but so do their countrymen today, since having fought for the colonial power is often, But North Africans fought and died not only in North Africa and the Middle East, but also in the liberation of Italy and of France itself. That they fought under a colonial flag has dimmed their memory at home. I thought a suitable D-Day commemoration might be to remember one of them.

None seem to have actually landed at Normandy on June 6, but many were already on French soil, having landed with the Dragoon landings in the South of France. (The only Free French engaged on D-Day were paratroops.) But General Leclerc's Second Armored Division, consisting of many North African, West African, and Equatorial African units (not all of indigenous troops: the Chasseurs d'Afrique were largely Algerian pieds noirs, French and other European colonials, and the Foreign Legion units of course were international, but French-officered). Leclerc's troops famously took the lead (with Allied consent) in the liberation of Paris. I thought for D-Day I'd note a Moroccan unit that had a distinguished career. The 1er Regiment de Marche de Spahis Marocains not only fought well in Europe but in other theaters as well. The regiment holds the Croi de Guerre and the Liberation Cross. When the last Spahi (native cavalry) units were disbanded in 1962 with Algerian independence, the 1st Regiment of Spahis (no longer Marocains) was retained, and continues as the inheritor of the tradition of all the Spahi units. For the current unit and its history, see here (official page, in French). For its history, there is an English Wikipedia page,  and a more detailed account in French here

The regiment was created in 1914 as a light cavalry unit by General (later Marshal) Lyautey, and served on the Marne and then on the Greek front. It then was deployed to Syria and Lebanon when France occupied its mandates there. Like all Spahi units, the officers were French.

At the time of the fall of France it was stationed in Syria. At the Fall of France part of the force crossed into Transjordan and Palestine to join British forces, and became part of the Free French forces, The still-Vichy part of the force later fought against the Allies in Morocco. The Free French unit was mechanized (it had been horse cavalry up till then) and the personnel came to include more French, though it remained a Moroccan unit. It fought with the British in Eritrea and in the North African campaign, and joined Leclerc's Second Armored Division as a reconnaissance unit. It landed at Normandy August 1 with Leclerc, took part in the Liberation of Paris, and sustained heavy casualties in fighting in France and Germany, and took part in the capture of Hitler's retreat at Berchtesgaden.

After the war it served for a time in the occupation of Germany, and also saw action in the French Indochina War. Its successor unit in the French Army saw action in  Operation Desert Storm in 1991.

The regimental campaign flag:

1 comment:

Kathleen Voss Woolrich said...

As the daughter of an OMAHA beach veteran and the mother of a Moroccan little girl , I thank you for this post