The 13th DBLE (Semi-Brigade of the Foreign Legion) 

Creation of the 13th DBLE:

At the beginning of 1940, the French and British governments decided to help Finland against the Soviet aggression. Also it’s up to block the way of the Swedish steel to Germany, who transits through by rail till Narvick and then by sea, sheltered by the Norvegian water territory limits…

Like the 11th REI, the two battalions of this new unit are formed by legionnaires coming from North-Africa regiments where they are not lacking. The hierarchy was made of experimented officers. Nevertheless it was not only a unit of professionals. The Spaniards are so one quarters of the  strength. The volunteers recruited for the time of war give to the unit a mixed character, with an obvious ideological coloration. Nevertheless they all size the opportunity not to stay away from the coming fights… 

On February 5th , they debark in Marseille and join the Larzac camp where they are given the special  equipment for mountain fights… The 27th they are given the name of 13th semi-Brigade of Foreign Legion (DBLE). The chief is the colonel Magrin-Vernerey, a hero of WW2…   


  The Norway campaign:

Finland capitulate on March 12th. Despite the fact, the high command still plans an operation on Narvik… Hitler decide to invade simultaneously Denmark and Norway.  In the night from April 8th to 9th, the Germans troops debark with audacity in Oslo, Kristiansand, Arendal, Bergen, Trondheim and Narvik… The Luftwaffe provides a huge air coverage and launches paratroops on Oslo and Stavenger…  It’s mobilisation hardly started, the Norvegian army cannot oppose resistance to the German columns who penetrate the country after seizing the large cities and airports.

 After some hesitations, France and Great Britain decide to send troops to Mamsos and Andalsnes to regain Trondheim… On April 26th, after failing of the operations around Trondheim, the allies decide to concentrate their efforts on Narvik.

The arrival before Narvik:

Meanwhile, the 13th  DBLE got the command to join Brest where it embarks after marching in the city’s streets under the population’s applauses… The 13th is now part of the 1st fight-infantry division under command of general Bethouard. On may 4th, after 5 days at sea, the convoy approaches Narvik.    

 Since the last week of April, the German garrison is strongly pressed from the North by the 6th Norwegian division. The Royal Navy, refuses to operate amphibian  assault in the narrow fjord. The 27th semi-Brigade of alpine chase is embarked in Elvenes and the Polish semi brigade I Balancine. All the resolution of general Bethouard is required to persuade the British to accept an assault. The 2nd battalion of the 13th SBFL is naturally charged with this delicate mission…

The legionnaires debark in Bjerkvit:

The target of the legionnaires is a fishermen’s village located  15 kilometres north of Narwik. May 14th at 1:00am the debark using  long-boats, whaling-ships and the first landing-barges… 

With the support of navy artillery, the legionnaire take over the shore and get hold of the Bjerkvit heights. The 1st Batallion controls the definitely the little harbour in ruins after two hours of intense fights. The 2nd batallion then debark in Meby and take the camp of Elvegaard, located behind Bjerkvit. Two tanks support the legionnaires’ forward move… A rear guard is covering the German retreat. One tank destroys two machine guns but a third one still blocks the progression of the 5th company. Three Spaniards tries the escalation taking advantage of a blind angle. Two loose life in this enterprise but the legionnaire Gayoso succeed to neutralize the enemy position  with grenades. This exploit will be granted with the Military Medal. In the run the motorcycled platoon from lieutenant Lofent makes it way down to the small fishermen’s harbour of  Oijord en face Narvik.  Encouraged by the success the legionnaire wish to continue the offensive on Narvik before the Germans recover their control, but the authorities command to stop operations… The 13th digs in and faces many air assaults, losing many men among them the commandant Guéninchault…

The announcement of the success of the German offensive on France started May 10th, incite the Allies to withdraw their troops from this secondary front. They decide to take over Narvik first in order to destroy the harbor and rail installations and also to ease the troops re-embarkation operations.  

A variegated disembarkment:

For once, in this campaign, the assailants will benefit from air coverage. From the air base of Bordufoss,  more to the north, a squadron of Gladiators and a squadron of Hurricanes will dispute the air supremacy to the German above Narvik and mainly protect the rear base of Harstad from destruction.

The operation planned on May 28th at midnight, is assigned to the 13th DBLE, with the support of a Norwegian battalion… Meanwhile the Alpine chase from the north and the Poles from the south operate diversion attacks. Heavy artillery support is provided by an iron plated ship, three cruisers and eight destroyers. This time the legionnaires debark at the very end of the artillery fire… The 2nd company of captain Gilbert targets a German position on the embanking of a railway. The embarkation point is exposed to the fire of the German fire pieces sheltered in the railway tunnels… The lieutenant-colonel Magrin-Vernerey decides to embark the troops from the other coast of the peninsula, from Seines, little fishing harbor out of sight of the enemy thanks to two hills…      

A furious fight:

By 8:00am, the Luftwaffe attacks  in force and he German mountain troops benefit to launch a violent counter-attack… The 2nd company must unhook their position. The whole stronghold is now  threatened. 

Lieutenant-Colonel Magrin-Vernerey refuses though to re-embark his troops and send them back to attack. Thank to the resistance of the lieutenant Vendit’s section who did not leave its position conquered on the rail embanking and has forbidden  the deployment of the Germans for four hours, the rest of the battalion retake the lost ground. The Norwegian battalion and the 3rd company  assault then the German position… Along the railway, canons of 25, uplifted  with difficulty  to the cliff, neutralize the German strongholds.  Due to the many air attack the 2nd battalion kept in reserve for the direct assault on Narvik , cannot be in position till 7:00pm. This late hour incite Lnt-Colonel Magrin-Vernerey to delay the attack to the next day at 4:00am. With the impulse of captain Amilakvari, the 2nd battalion take the initiative to progress and occupy with a weak opposition the hills close to the city evacuated by the German during the night. The sleep of the chief of the 13th DBLE is interrupted by this news: the Legion holds Narvik!   

 The evacuation : 

During the following days after the taking of Narvik, the Germans are pushed back to the Swedish border along the railway… But from June 4th to 7th , the 25,000 men of the expeditionary corps are evacuated in high secret, without even informing the Norwegian troops about this decision. The legionnaire of the 1st battalion are the last to leave. To the 13th DBLE, the cost of this campaign is the loss of  7 officers and 60 men killed. Most fell on May 28th in the rank of the 1st battalion… The 13th returns to Brest on June 15th to participate to the Britton redoubt thought by the high command in full decomposition. Moved to Rennes by train, the 13th immediately receive command to return to Brest from where the troops are evacuated to England under the German bombs. A new story starts.  
Extracts from Narvik 1940 By Jean-Philippe LIARDET on