Article Forgotten German veterans of France's Vietnam war


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Found this article elsewhere and found it fascinating, hope you all do too.

Forgotten German veterans of France's Vietnam war
02 May 2004

By James Mackenzie

WEINHEIM AN DER BERGSTRASSE, Germany, May 2 (Reuters) - Four years after the end of World War Two, while much of Germany still lay in ruins, 17-year-old Egon Pohl left his home to join the Foreign Legion and France's war in Vietnam.
"It was adventure and a new home," said Pohl, who lied about his age to join the elite French force along with thousands of others trying to escape the chaos and rubble of post-war Germany.
An estimated 35,000 Germans served during the eight-year conflict that ended 50 years ago this week when a disastrous defeat at the battle of Dien Bien Phu on May 7, 1954 brought about the fall of France's colonial empire in Indochina.
Many were combat veterans from the army or SS members recruited straight from prisoner of war camps after Germany's defeat.
But many uprooted and disoriented younger men whose homes and family had been lost were also attracted by the promise of adventure and a new start as well as good food and pay.
"I came back from Russia and had nowhere else to go," said Heinz Kaiser, whose parents had both been killed in the war and who joined the Legion in 1953 after his home in the former eastern German region of Silesia was absorbed into Poland.
Highly regarded by the French for their discipline and bravery, Germans made up over half the Foreign Legion units that bore much of the heaviest fighting against the communist Viet Minh forces of Ho Chi Minh.
In a brutal, but now little-known war in which untold numbers of Vietnamese died, more than 10,000 Legionnaires were killed, out of about 70,000 who fought as France battled to keep possessions the Legion had helped conquer from 1883.
On a tranquil spring evening in south Germany, Kaiser, Pohl and others like Manfred Laubscher, who won one of France's top decorations, the Medaille Militaire, in a paratrooper battalion or Rudolf Schneider, who won the same medal as a sergeant in a mainly Vietnamese infantry unit, look back with former comrades.
They recall manning remote bush forts far from the elegant colonial capital Hanoi or patrolling paddy fields and elephant grass where American troops fought more than a decade later.
But direct sightings of their elusive enemy were scarce.
"We only really saw them when they wanted," said Wilhelm Roessler, who spent much of his service in the jungles of Laos.
Exceptions were battles like Dien Bien Phu, where 1,600 Germans took part in an epic defeat masterminded by Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap that became known as France's Stalingrad.
Giap led the Viet Minh, a coalition of communists and nationalists, in the legendary siege of Colonel Christian de Castries's forces in the town of Dien Bien Phu, about 490 km (300 miles) northwest of Hanoi.
Serving alongside French and Vietnamese units and Algerian, Moroccan or Senegalese troops from France's colonial empire, the Legion was the backbone of a multinational army fighting a distant war that raised little enthusiasm in a war-weary France.
For their part, the Germans and their Italian, Spanish or eastern European colleagues, felt their main attachment to the Legion rather than to France and few made much effort to speak any other language than German.
"I learned some French, but only because I was interested," said Pohl. Otherwise, most learned only the main French words of command, took their orders from German sergeants and sang German marching songs as they tramped along the dusty roads.
Despite this, the Legion was one of the most decorated units in the French army, its tradition upheld by ferocious discipline and ruthless punishment for those who failed to keep up.
But it also provided strong comradeship and an alternative family as well as stereotypically French comforts such as good food and limitless quantities of wine, even supplied in concentrated or powdered form when troops were in the field.
"We had the right to wine as part of our contract," said Heinrich Back, who served in the later Algerian war and who now heads an "Amicale" or veterans' association in Mannheim.
But despite the strong cohesion of the Legion, a small number of Germans did desert the French to join the Viet Minh and two former German Legionnaires even became top officials in the Viet Minh's propaganda and intelligence services.
Although joining a foreign army was frowned on in Germany, post-war governments could not risk angering France by stopping it outright and there was no shortage of recruits for Indochina.
"The Legion always gets recruits from countries which aren't doing well economically," Back said.
While many saw Legionnaires as irresponsible adventurers, they exerted a strong fascination in the conformist Germany of the 1950s, reflected in the huge success of the sentimental song "Der Legionaer", which spent weeks in the charts in 1958.
However once Germany's "Economic Miracle" brought prosperity in the 1960s, the supply of German recruits dried up and today, only a handful serve in the much-reduced Legion, although there are over 40 veterans' associations in Germany.
Given the insistence in both Paris and Berlin on the ever closer defence ties between the two countries, there is an irony to the fact that so little attention is paid to the thousands of Germans who fought in France's colonial wars.
"We're treated like emperors when we go to France but in Germany, people of our generation still think we're hoodlums," said Wolfgang Fluegge, who joined the Legion in 1954.
But none of the men regrets his time in the Legion. "You won't find any Legionnaire who regrets it," they said.
Excellent article, have you found any books?
There is a blinder written by a bloke who was in the Waffen SS in Belorussia at the end of WW2. He evaded allied capture being passed down an SS escape line, to join the Legion in Strasbourg I think. The book details how his platoon of ex SS troops went through basic training and then into the jungles with the Legion. It is highly amusing, quite political and full of their escapades. Since this post first appeared, I've been looking for the book name on the net but without success so far. I used to own it about 14 years ago but it went missing on a move from somewhere to somewhere else.
Flippin' 'eck and so forth. Having just typed that lot above, I search the net again with different parameters and come across what I was looking for:

Devil’s Guard” (1971 Delacourte NY hardback & 1985 Dell paperback) and the sequels “Recall to Inferno” and “Devil’s Guard III: Unconditional Warfare” are supposedly based on the memoirs of a Hans Wagemueller - but that is not his real name! About ex-SS Partisan Hunters from the Eastern Front in post-WWII French (and post-French?) Vietnam. Look for author George R. (for Robert) Elford on and see the reviews. Who knows whether it is anything like a memoir, or just a “fact-based” novel! High prices ($90+) for an old paperback!

So there you have it!
Yes, I remember "Devils Guard" I read it many years ago and if I recall it starts off when they escaped as a unit over the mountains. Pretty good book, my son works at Waterstone's so I will see if I can get it.
That's the one - the other guys surrendered and were shot!
Have you tried "The forgotten Soldier" by Guy Sajer?
Cracking book but the ending is a bit hasty and vague.
Is that the chap who joins "Das Reich" from a standard line regt and heads off to the Eastern Front?
If it is, cracking book but again, went missing in one of my moves!

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