The Colonial Era


The war against Colonial powers begins

French Flag over Mehdia Kasbah.

In 1805, Tension returned to mark Moroccan-Ottoman relations following the Darqawi Muqaddam Sidi Mohammed Benshrif al-Falliti al-Wahrani’a mutiny against the Dey of Algiers, the latter solicited the Moroccan Sultan Mawlay Sulayman’s intervention in the dispute. The Sultan ordered the Shaykh Mawlay al-Arabi al-Darqawi (d. 1823) to leave for Oran accompanied by al-Hajj al-Tahir Badu, with the task of persuading the rebellious Muqaddam to seek a peaceful solution to the conflict. But al-‘Arabi al-Darqawi joined the rebels in Oran and Tlemcen and convinced them to say the Khutba in the name of Mawlay Sulayman, thus infuriating the Dey. The delegation then returned to Fez accompanied by a deputation from Tlemcen to offer the Bay’a to the Sultan. Although flattered by the request, Sulayman rejected it as being unworthy of him. He sent the mission back to Tlemcen after recommending its members to the clemency of the Dey.

Influence of Morocco continued under the reign of  the Sultan Moulay Abdurrahman (d. 1859) even after the colonization of France to Algeria in 1245/1830. In 1256/1840, the sultan fearing that the French would attach Touat (Tuwat) to Algeria, charged the Wazzani Shaykh Sidi al-Haj al-Arbi al-Wazzani (d. 1851) by formal decree (dahir) to administer it for him. The Moroccan-origin Sufi shaykh, Sidi Mohammed Ma’ El Aynain (“his nickname he received as a child, meaning ‘water of the eyes’ in Arabic”; d. 1831 in Tiznit, Sus), who is better remmebred for his inspiration and leadership of a Sahrawi resistance movement in a six years holy war against French and Spanish colonization in North Africa, have proclaimed that the Trab al-Beidan— a desert area that includes today’s Mauritania, Western Sahara and large swaths of Mali and Algeria —was under the Moroccan rule. While the Shaykh was appointed as the Sultan’s representative in the Sahara and given control over his forces, this display of effective cooperation helped assemble a large coalition of tribes to fight the colonizers. After an agreement among the European colonial powers at the Berlin Conference in 1884 on the division of spheres of influence in Africa, Spain seized control of the Moroccan Western Sahara and established it as a Spanish protectorate after a series of wars against the local tribes reminiscent of similar European colonial adventures of the period, in the Maghreb, sub-Saharan Africa, and elsewhere.

Sidi Maa’ al-Aynayn began acquiring firearms and other materials, both through channels in Morocco and through direct negotiations with rival European powers such as Germany and Spain, and quickly built up an impressive fighting force. Increasingly disturbed by Western penetration of the area, which he viewed both as an intrusion by hostile foreign powers and as a Christian assault on Islam, Shaykh Sidi Maa’ al-Aynayn started to advocate resistance. Sahrawi tribes performed raids against the foreign forces even before that, but French troops drew ever closer, conquering one local ruler after the other. In 1904, the Shaykh proclaimed himself imam, and called for a holy war (Jihad) against the colonizers. His charisma as both a religious and political leader allowed him to gather tribes around him.

French activity in Morocco began during the 19th century; in 1904 France and Spain secretly partitioned the territory of the sultanate, with Spain later creating Spanish Morocco from its portion. In 1910, anarchy spread through Morocco, as European pressures were making Moroccan Sultanate weaker and weaker. On March 4, 1912, the Sultan Moulay Hafid signed the Protectorate treaty with the French. French Morocco did not include the north of the country, which was a Spanish protectorate, and consisted generally of the area of Morocco between Fez and Rabat south to Mogador, (current day Essaouira). Germany recognised French and Spanish territories in Morocco, receiving in return territories in the French Equatorial African colony of Middle Congo (now the Republic of the Congo). Meanwhile, Sidi Maa’ al-Aynayn was writing a theological text titled “Hidāyatu man Hārā fī Muhārabat an-Nasāra” (Guide for the One who Doubts the Legitimacy of the War against the Christians) in which he was inciting to Jihad and calling its adversaries traitors or even miscreants. The following year, the French began interrupting the flow of arms to the Jihadists. The uprising crumbled, as French forces—then under colonel Gouraud’s control—pushed forward. Sidi Maa’ al-Aynayn retreated to Tiznit. The Shaykh concerned that Morocco would fall into European hands, decided he would try to seize the country. He was proclaimed Sultan of Morocco in June, and immediately appointed head of an army of several thousand men, whose mission was to overthrow Moulay Hafid. He was intercepted on June 23, and his forces were destroyed by the modern French army. Sidi Maa’ al-Aynayn, then about 80 years old, fled back to Tiznit, where he died in October. Shaykh Sidi Mohammed Maa’ al-Aynayn was succeeded by his son Sidi Mohammed Loghdof (“al-Aghdaf”; b. 1875). As both marabout and leader of the Reguibat tribe, he soon became known to the French as ‘our bitter enemy’. Another of Sidi Ma’ El Aynayn’s sons, Sidi Ahmed al-Hiba (d. 1921), achieved the virtually impossible in 1912 by storming the colonial jewel of Marrakech. Although Sidi al-Hiba was forced out of the city within a month, by his act of defiance he achieved immortality, and became known as the ‘Blue Sultan’. In 1912, the French burned Smara; but the city still remained the symbolic centre of the resistance.

Zaian War

Charles Mangin enters Marrakesh, 9 September 1912

The Zaian (or Zayan) War was fought between France and the Zaian confederation of Berber tribes in Morocco between 1914 and 1921. Morocco had become a French protectorate in 1912, and Resident General Louis-Hubert Lyautey sought to extend French influence eastwards through the Middle Atlas mountains towards French Algeria. This was opposed by the Zaians, led by Mouha ou Hammou Zayani. The war began well for the French, who quickly took the key towns of Taza and Khénifra. Despite the loss of their base at Khénifra, the Zaians inflicted heavy losses on the French, who responded by establishing groupes mobiles, combined arms formations that mixed regular and irregular infantry, cavalry and artillery into a single force.

The outbreak of the First World War proved significant, with the withdrawal of troops for service in France compounded by the loss of more than 600 French killed at the Battle of El Herri. Lyautey reorganised his available forces into a “living barricade”, consisting of outposts manned by his best troops protecting the perimeter of French territory with lower quality troops manning the rear-guard positions. Over the next four years the French retained most of their territory despite intelligence and financial support provided by the Central Powers to the Zaian Confederation and continual raids and skirmishes reducing scarce French manpower.

After the signing of the Armistice with Germany in November 1918, significant forces of tribesmen remained opposed to French rule. The French resumed their offensive in the Khénifra area in 1920, establishing a series of blockhouses to limit the Zaians’ freedom of movement. They opened negotiations with Hammou’s sons, persuading three of them, along with many of their followers, to submit to French rule. A split in the Zaian Confederation between those who supported submission and those still opposed led to infighting and the death of Hammou in Spring 1921. The French responded with a strong, three-pronged attack into the Middle Atlas that pacified the area. Some tribesmen, led by Moha ou Said, fled to the High Atlas and continued a guerrilla war against the French well into the 1930s.

First World War

Moroccan troops in Amiens (France) in 1915, during WWI.

Moroccan Regular troops didn’t belong stricto sensu to the Colonial Troops in the French Army. Morocco was a protectorate, so it kept its own chief-of-State, the Sultan and own armed forces, not like other regions, wich were considered colonies and part of the nation. For this reason conscription was never applied and all soldiers were regulars or volunteers, all known as Indigenous troops (troupes indigènes) at French Service, these were Spahis (Mounted units), Tirailleures (Infantry Units) and Goumiers (Auxiliary Units).

In addition to the 90,000 troupes indigènes already under arms when the war started, France deployed between 1914 and 1918 nearly 37,300 Moroccans. Most of them served in Europe. Henri Barbusse, for instance, in his literary war diary Le Feu, described Moroccan soldiers as follows:

One looks at them and is silent. One would not speak to them. They are
imposing and even frighten a bit…Of course they are heading for the
front line. This is their place, and their arrival means we are about to
attack. They are made for attacking.

Colonel Petitdemange, responsible for West Africans’ training in the camp of Fréjus in southern France, wrote in a letter in January 1918 to a colleague that African soldiers were ‘cannon fodder, who should, in order to save whites’ lives, be made use of much more intensively’. And even Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, in a speech delivered to the French Senate on 20 February 1918, stated:

We are going to offer civilisation to the Blacks. They will have to pay for that….
I would prefer that ten Blacks are killed rather than one Frenchman – although
I immensely respect those brave Blacks –, for I think that enough Frenchmen are
killed anyway and that we should sacrifice as few as possible!
Thus it is clear that there was at least the intention to assign colonial troops to especially dangerous tasks. The question remains, however, whether this doctrine caused significantly higher casualty rates than with European troops. The number of Moroccan soldiers killed in action ranges between 2500 and 9000 or between 7% and 24%.

Rif War

Spanish forces landing in Northern Morocco (Alhucemas, September 1925)

The Rif War, also called the Second Moroccan War, was fought in the early 1920s between the colonial power Spain (later assisted by France) and the Moroccan Berbers of the Rif mountainous region. Spain and France in combined action in 1926 won a decisive victory. Douglas Porch says the rebellion against Spanish rule was a precursor to the nationalistic, radical, anticolonial revolutions in the Third World after World War II. Led by Abd al-Karim, the Rifs at first defeated the Spanish forces by using guerrilla tactics and captured European weapons. France’s entry into the conflict forced el-Krim into surrender and exile, but controversy in Spain over the war led to a military coup by General Miguel Primo de Rivera in 1923 and foreshadowed the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39.

The Berber tribesmen had a long tradition of fierce fighting skills, combined with high standards of fieldcraft and marksmanship. They were capably led by Muhammad Ibn ‘Abd al-Karim al-Khattabi, commonly called Abd al-Karim, who showed both military and political expertise. However, the Rifian regular army was never a very large force. The elite of the Rifian forces formed regular units which according to Abd el-Krim, quoted by the Spanish General Manuel Goded, numbered 6,000 to 7,000. Other sources put it much lower, at around 2,000 to 3,000.

The remaining Rifians were tribal militia selected by their Caids and not liable to serve away from their homes and farms for more than fifteen consecutive days. General Goded estimated that at their peak, in June 1924, the Rifian forces numbered about 80,000 men, although Abd el-Krim was never able to arm more than 20,000 men at a time. In the final days of the war Rifian forces numbered about 12,000 men. In addition Rifian forces were not well armed, with weapons badly maintained and in poor condition.

Initially, the Spanish forces in Morocco were largely composed of Spanish conscripts. These “Peninsular” troops were poorly supplied and prepared, few had marksmanship skills and proper battle training, and widespread corruption was reported amongst the officer corps, reducing supplies and morale. Even with their numerical superiority, they proved no match for the highly skilled and motivated Rifian forces. Accordingly, much reliance came to be placed on the few professional units comprising Spain’s Army of Africa. Since 1911, these had included regiments of Moroccan Regulares, who proved to be excellent soldiers.

With the difficulties and setbacks it experienced, the Spanish army began to adopt much in organization and tactics from the French Foreign Legion and a Spanish equivalent, the Tercio de Extranjeros (“Regiment of Foreigners”), known in English as the “Spanish Legion”, was formed in 1920. The regiment’s second commander was General Francisco Franco, having risen rapidly through the ranks.

Less than 25% of this “Foreign Legion” were, in fact, non-Spanish. Harshly disciplined and driven, they quickly acquired a reputation for ruthlessness. As their number grew, they increasingly led offensive operations after the disasters that had been suffered by the conscript forces.

As an outcome of the Treaty of Fez (1912) Spain gained possession of the lands around Melilla and Ceuta. In 1920, the Spanish commissioner, General Dámaso Berenguer, decided to conquer the eastern territory from the Jibala tribes, but had little success. On 1 July 1921, the Spanish army in north-eastern Morocco collapsed when defeated by the forces of Abd el-Krim, in what became known in Spain as the disaster of Annual, some 8,000 soldiers and officers reported killed or disappeared out of some 20,000. The Spanish were pushed back and during the following five years, occasional battles were fought between the two. The Rifian forces advanced to the east and captured over 130 Spanish military posts.

By late August 1921, Spain lost all the territories it had gained since 1909. Spanish troops were pushed back to Melilla, which was their biggest base in the eastern Rif. Spain still had 14,000 soldiers in Melilla. However Abd el-Krim ordered his forces not to attack the town. He subsequently told the writer J. Roger-Matthieu that since citizens of other European nations were residing in Melilla, it was feared they would intervene in the war should their citizens come to harm.Other reasons included the dispersal of Rifian fighters from several loosely allied tribes following the victory at Annual; and the arrival in Melilla of substantial reinforcements from the Legion and other Spanish units recalled from operations in western Morocco. By the end of August Spanish forces at Melilla numbered 36,000 under General Jose Sanjurjo and the slow process of recovering the lost territory could begin.

Thus the Spanish could keep their biggest base in the eastern Rif. Later Abd el-Krim would admit: “I bitterly regret this order. It was my biggest mistake. All the following tenor of events happened because of this mistake.”

By January 1922 the Spanish had retaken their major fort at Monte Arruit (where they found the bodies of 2,600 of the garrison) and had reoccupied the coastal plain as far as Tistutin and Batel. The Rifian forces had consolidated their hold of the inland mountains and stalemate was reached. Even Spanish command of the sea was uncertain and in March a Spanish warship was sunk in Alhucemas Bay by Rifian artillery.

In 1924, during fighting at Dar Aquba, Abd el-Krim’s men inflicted a staggering loss on the Spanish colonial forces, killing over 10,000 men.In a bid to break the stalemate, the Spanish military turned to the use of chemical weapons against the Riffians.

In May 1924, the French Army had established a line of posts north of the Oureghla River in disputed tribal territory. On 12 April 1925, an estimated 8,000Rifians attacked this line and in two weeks over 40 of 66 French posts had been stormed or abandoned. French casualties exceeded 1,000 killed, 3,700 wounded and 1,000 missing – representing losses of over twenty percent of the French forces deployed in the Rif. The French accordingly intervened on the side of Spain, employing up to 160,000 well trained and equipped troops from Metropolitan, North African, Senegalese and Foreign Legion units, and 90,000 Spanish forces for a total of around 250,000. French deaths in what had now become a major war are estimated at about 12,000.

For the final attack commencing on 8 May 1926, the French and Spanish had ranged 123,000 men, supported by 150 aircraft, against 12,000 Rifians. Superior manpower and technology soon resolved the course of the war in favour of France and Spain. The French troops pushed through from the south while the Spanish fleet and army secured Alhucemas Bay by an amphibious landing, and began attacking from the north. After one year of bitter resistance, Abd el-Krim, the leader of both the tribes, surrendered to French authorities, and in 1926 Spanish Morocco was finally retaken.

However, the unpopularity of the war in Spain and the earlier humiliations of the Spanish military contributed to the instability of the Spanish government and the military coup of 1923.

Spanish civil War

The Army of Africa  was a Spanish field army that garrisoned Spanish Morocco from the late 19th century until Morocco’s independence in 1956. The Army of Africa was to play a key part during the Spanish Civil War of 1936–39. Along with other units in the Spanish Army, the Army of Africa rose against the Republican Government and took part in the Nacional military rebellion of July 1936. On 18 July 1936, General Francisco Franco assumed the supreme command over this force.

Spanish Morocco fell to the rebels without significant opposition. The initial intention was to transport the Army of Africa to mainland Spain by sea. However the crews of Spanish warships whose officers had joined the revolt remained loyal to the Republican government in Madrid. Between 29 July and 5 August 1936 1,500 members of the Army of Africa were accordingly transported to mainland Spain in a bold airlift led by Junkers transport planes supplied by Germany. Fascist Italy provided Savoia 81 bombers to provide air cover for merchant ships carrying 3,000 soldiers and equipment from Morocco on 5 August. Thereafter daily flights continued until about 8,000 Moroccans and legionaries, with supporting artillery, were gathered at Seville.

After landing in Spain, the Army of Africa was split into two columns, one commanded by General Juan Yagüe and the other commanded by Colonel José Varela. Yagüe’s force advanced north, making remarkably rapid gains, and then turned north-eastwards towards Madrid and Toledo. Varela’s force entered Andalusia and took control of the key cities of Seville, Granada, and Cordova. Thanks mostly to the Army of Africa’s advances, almost all of western Spain was in Francoist Nacionales hands by the end of September 1936. By early 1937 the Army of Africa’s strength had been increased to 80,000 men. The Legion and Regulares spearheaded the Nacionales’s operations for the remainder of the war and played a central role in the Nacional victory.

Another 6-10,000 moroccans fought in the Republicans side during th conflict but there isn’t much information about their role during the conflcit.

World War II

The first inkling of Morocco’s pro-U.S. stance came with Mohammed V’s proclamation on 7 September 1938: “I wish to confirm with the highest and clearest voice that Morocco’s King and his subjects will offer unified resistance and will side with France.” Despite the famous Humphrey Bogart movie Casablanca, which featured a host of Nazi, Allied, and Vichy French spies, the Moroccan position during the war was quite clear; it picked the Allied cause against fascism.

On 3 September 1939, Moroccan mosques issued in poetic prose, a royal proclamation that reminded its citizens of World War I’s effect on society, emphasizing the need to back France once again against the Germans. What also motivated the Moroccans was a belief that nations under French and British colonialism would be given their independence once victory over Germany was achieved.

German Blitzkrieg 1940. On 3 September 1939, the Moroccans organized a brigade of 2,300 fighters in Meknes. The brigade was part of the 1st Moroccan Division, which included the 1st, 3d, and 7th Moroccan Infantry Regiments. The regiments were sent to France and positioned along the Belgian border under the command of French forces. After marching 130 kilometers in 3 days, the Moroccans witnessed Adolf Hitler’s 10 May 1940 blitzkrieg and German forces’ engagements on 14 and 15 May. There is no information about how the Moroccans were defeated tactically, but Al-Merini mentions that of the 2,300 Moroccans sent as part of the Belgian Campaign, only 50 returned to Meknes after the liberation of Europe in 1945. A footnote to the chapter on World War II contains the unit citation (A l’ordre de l’Armee) bestowed on the 7th Moroccan Regiment by the French War Ministry. The citation acknowledges Moroccan forces for bravery while engaged in hand-to-hand combat against German units as well as their proficiency with bayonets.

In 1989, French and Belgian veterans gathered in Brussels to memorialize those who died in the German blitzkrieg in Belgium. Part of the ceremony involved reading verses from the Quran in memory of the valiant Moroccans who died defending the Benelux countries.

Anfa Conference 1943. In January 1943, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, American President Franklin D. Roosevelt, French General Charles DeGaulle, and King Mohammed V met for 4 days in the Casablanca suburb of Anfa to map out a strategy for the war. The Anfa Conference is significant because it is where the Allies first agreed on the demand for an “unconditional surrender” of the Axis powers.

A highlight of the conference was a dinner party hosted by Roosevelt in honor of Mohammed V and his son Moulay Hassan. Roosevelt’s recognition of the Moroccan Sovereign as host of the conference and as a ruler of importance gave credibility to Moroccan aspirations for independence. Roosevelt asserted that the King should not allow other countries to exploit Morocco’s natural resources. Roosevelt is also reported to have said that he would do all in his power to support Morocco’s wish to gain its independence from France. At the conclusion of the conference, the King proclaimed: “A new future for my country.”

Casablanca and the Algerian port of Oran received the bulk of North African Allied landings during Operation Torch. Al-Merini discusses French infighting between Auguste Paul Nogues the pro-Vichy French Governor-General to Morocco; DeGaulle; and French General Henri Honore Giraud, who supported the Allied landings in North Africa.

The initial landings of Operation Torch involved U.S. and Free French Army units engaging pro-Nazi Vichy French formations under Nogues. Battles occurred off the Moroccan coastal towns of Ahsfee, Mahdia, and Buzineeqah. Nogues encouraged King Mohammed V to move his capital from Rabat to Fez to be closer to the Axis defenses, but the Moroccan monarch refused, choosing instead to honor his commitment to the Anfa Conference and to the Allied cause.

The arrival of U.S. General George S. Patton’s 5,000 troops and 250 tanks turned the tide of Vichy French resistance to the Allies. The final fierce fighting for the Axis cause was an attempt to capture the Moroccan capital of Rabat, but Marshal Henri Philippe Petain authorized Nogues to negotiate a cease-fire with General Dwight D. Eisenhower in Algiers. Once Morocco was secure, it served as a major base for U.S. bombers and as a logistics center for the push toward Tunisia and Sicily. On 18 November 1942, Nogues and Patton attended the annual celebration of King Mohammed V’s ascension. The monarch publicly reaffirmed his commitment to the Allies by contributing 12,000 Moroccan troops to the Allied forces.

Italy 1942-1944. The 12,000 Moroccan troops that joined the Allies included infantry, artillery, anti-air units, and engineering companies that were trained on U.S. and French military munitions. The first destination of the Moroccan formation was to join trained Tunisians to fight a combined German-Italian occupation force in Tunisia. Battles to liberate Tunisia lasted 6 months.

Elements of the Moroccan division were split up and joined with other Algerian and Tunisian units attached to Allied forces liberating the islands of Corsica and Elbe. By securing these islands along with Tunisia, the Straits of Messina lay open to Sicily. From November 1943 to January 1944, the Moroccans became bogged down as they made their way from an amphibious assault near Naples toward Mount Cassino. The Moroccans used dynamite, grenades, and flamethrowers to take out each defensive position.

In 1944, Moroccan units joined the task force formed to assault the Gustav and Sigfried lines. Moroccan units played an important role in breaking the siege at Anzio, fighting alongside the Allies for 20 days. The Moroccans also joined the Allies in the summer of 1944 to liberate Rome.

Final Invasion of Germany 1944-1945. It was necessary to regroup and re-equip 6,000 Moroccan troops to augment the 12,000 exhausted Moroccan troops who were fighting in North Africa and Italy. Fresh Moroccan forces, along with battle-hardened troops, took part in the capture of Florence (June 1944) and in the amphibious assault on Marseilles. Making their way into France from the east, the Moroccans were once again directly attacking along the Alps and the hills of Tuscany. By October-November 1944, the Moroccans were fighting in winter conditions along the Rhine.

A Moroccan honor guard marched with Allied forces along the Champs Elysees in August 1944. Moroccan forces joined the First French Army to liberate France and then helped guard the French sector in postwar Germany.

According to Al Merini, 8,000 Moroccan soldiers lost their lives, 28,000 soldiers were wounded, and 7,000 became prisoners of war (POWs). One-thousand Moroccans were awarded the Campaign de la Liberation, and 500 were posthumously awarded French, British, and American awards for valor. The French government gave King Mohammed V and Crown Prince Hassan II the Order of Liberation.

Throughout 1945, Morocco worked with the Allies to repatriate its POWs from Axis camps. The French cited specific tribes like the Zayan and Zummur tribes for excellence in commando tactics. Moroccan Army commanders were cited for bravery and leadership; for example Idris Ben-Taher was credited with helping capture the French town of Montpellier. The 2d and 7th Moroccan Regiments received Belgium’s Legion of Honor in 1947 for their actions in 1940 against an unstoppable German blitzkrieg.

Ifni War

Spanish Soldiers during Ifni War (1957)

The Ifni War, sometimes called the Forgotten War in Spain (la Guerra Olvidada), was a series of armed incursions into Spanish West Africa by Moroccan insurgents and Saharawi rebels that began in October 1957 and culminated with the abortive siege of Sidi Ifni. The war, which may be seen as part of the general movement of decolonization that swept Africa throughout the later half of the 20th century, was conducted primarily by elements of the Moroccan Army of Liberation which, no longer tied down in conflicts with the French, committed a significant portion of its resources and manpower to the capture of Spanish possessions.

Violent demonstrations against foreign rule erupted in Ifni on April 10, followed by civil strife and the widespread murder of those loyal to Spain. In response, Generalisimo Franco dispatched two battalions of the Spanish Legion, Spain’s elite fighting force, to Laayoun in June. Spanish military mobilization resulted in the Moroccan army converging near Ifni. On October 23, two villages on the outskirts of Sidi Ifni, Goulimine and Bou Izarguen, were occupied by 1,500 Moroccan soldiers (Moukhahidine). The encirclement of Ifni had begun. Two more Legionary battalions reached the Spanish Sahara before the opening of hostilities.

On November 21, Spanish intelligence in Ifni reported that attacks were imminent by Moroccans operating out of Tafraout. Two days later, Spanish lines of communication were cut, and a force of 2,000 Moroccans stormed Spanish garrisons and armories in and around Ifni. Although the Moroccan drive into Sidi Ifni was easily repulsed, two nearby Spanish outposts were abandoned in the face of enemy attacks and many others remained under heavy siege.

At Tiluin, 60 Tiradores de Ifni (indigenous infantry with Spanish officers and specialist personnel), struggled to stave off a force of hundreds of Moroccans. On November 25, a relief attempt was authorized. A fleet of five CASA 2.111 bombers (Spanish-built variants of the Heinkel He-111), bombed enemy positions, while an equal number of CASA 352 transports (Spanish-built versions of the Junkers Ju-52/3m) dropped a force of 75 paratroopers into the outpost.

On December 3, soldiers of the Spanish Legion 6th battalion (VI Bandera) arrived, breaking the siege and retaking the airfield. All military and civilian personnel were then evacuated overland to Sidi Ifni. In addition to many of the other excuses for not being able to defend their occupation, the relief of Telata was decidedly less successful. Leaving Sidi Ifni on November 24 aboard several old trucks, a platoon of the Spanish Legion paratroop battalion under Captain Ortiz de Zárate made poor ground through difficult terrain. This problem was compounded by frequent Moroccan ambushes, which by the next day had left several men wounded and forced the Spaniards off the road. On November 26, food ran out. The Spanish, low on ammunition, resumed the march, only to dig in again in the face of repeated enemy attacks. Rations were dropped from airplane, but casualties continued to mount; among the dead was Captain Ortiz de Zárate. On December 2, a column of infantry, among them the erstwhile defenders of Telata, broke through the Moroccan lines and drove the enemy off. The survivors of the paratroop battalion set foot in Sidi Ifni once more on December 5. The company had suffered two dead and 14 wounded.

Initial Moroccan attacks had been generally successful. In the space of two weeks, the Moroccans and their tribal allies had asserted control over most of Ifni, isolating inland Spanish units from the capital. Simultaneous attacks had been launched throughout Spanish Sahara, overrunning garrisons and ambushing convoys and patrols. Consequently, Moroccan units, resupplied and greatly reinforced, endeavored to surround and besiege Sidi Ifni, hoping to incite popular uprising. But the Moroccans underestimated the strength of the Spanish defenses. Supplied from the sea by the Spanish Navy and invested with kilometers of trenches and forward outposts, Sidi Ifni, boasting 7,500 defenders by December 9, proved impregnable. The siege, lasting into June 1958, was uneventful and relatively bloodless, as Spain and Morocco both concentrated resources on Saharan theatres.

On January 1958, Morocco redoubled its commitment to the Spanish campaign, reorganizing all army units in Spanish territory as the “Saharan Liberation Army”. On January 12, a division of the Saharan Liberation Army attacked the Spanish garrison at El Aaiún. Beaten back and forced into retreat by the Spaniards, the army turned its efforts to the southeast. Another opportunity presented itself the next day at Edchera, where two companies of the 13th Legionary battalion were conducting a reconnaissance mission. Slipping unseen into the large dunes near the Spanish positions, the Moroccans opened fire. Ambushed, the Legionaries fought to maintain cohesion, driving off attacks with mortar and small arms fire. Notable fighting was seen by the 1st platoon, which stubbornly denied ground to the Moroccans until heavy losses forced it to withdraw. Bloody attacks continued until nightfall, and were fiercely resisted by the Spanish, who inflicted heavy casualties. By nightfall, the Moroccans were too scattered and depleted of men to continue their assault, and fled into the darkness.

In February 1958, Franco-Spanish corps launched a major offensive that successively dismantled the Moroccan Liberation Army. For the first time, massively superior European air power was brought to bear as France and Spain deployed a joint air fleet of 150 planes. The Spanish were 9,000 strong and the French 5,000. First to fall were the Moroccan mountain strongholds at Tan-Tan. Bombed from above and rocketed from below, the Liberation Army suffered 150 dead and abandoned its war caches. On February 10, the 4th, 9th, and 13th Spanish Legion battalions, organized into a motorized group, drove the Moroccans from Edchera and swept through to Tafurdat and Smara. The Spanish army at El Aaiún, in conjunction with French forces from Fort Gouraud, struck the Moroccans on February 21, destroying Saharan Liberation Army concentrations between Bir Nazaran and Ausert.  Spain retained possession of Ifni until 1969, when, while under some international pressure (resolution 2072 of the United Nations from 1965), it returned the territory to Morocco. Spain kept control of Western Sahara until the 1975 Green March and the Moroccan Army incursion prompted a withdrawal.

First Indochina War

The French holdings in North Africa provided one of the main sources of manpower for the CEFEO. In July 1953, there were 30,000 North Africans serving in Indochina, as static garrisons, parts of the Groupes Mobile (GMs) or other mobile duties. The Tirailleurs (riflemen), Goumiers (Moroccan irregular infantry) and spahis (cavalry) from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, served throughout the war in many roles. The other North African units (i.e. the Colonial infantry and artillery) are not included here, but will be covered elsewhere.

In all, there were 21 battalions of Moroccan tirailleurs employed in Indochina between 1947 and 1956. Their main service was in Tonkin (17 battalions), but they also served in Cochinchina (8 bns), Annam (5 bns) and Laos (7 bns). There was only intermittent duty in Cambodia.

Initially, as for the other tirailleurs, march battalions were sent from Morocco for two-year tours, and then returned. But, from 1950, the units remained in place and were relieved by periodic detachments from Morocco. The battalions followed the normal CEFEO pattern, with the usual mix of French (pre- and post-WW2), US and British uniforms and equipment. The bush-hat, steel helmet or chèche (as turban, or worn under the helmet) seem to be the most common headgear. Weapons as per other CEFEO troops.

Goums were irregular units formed of volunteer tribesmen from the Atlas Mountains, who now had to adapt to a new style of combat, and a climate very different to their homeland. The Moroccan goumiers were formed into Tabors (battalions) of three Goums (companies) plus a Goum de commandement, d’accompagnement et de transmissions (GCAT – i.e. HQ company). Their uniform was basically that worn during the campaigns of 1943-45 in Italy, with the khaki cotton uniform being most often worn in Indochina without the djellaba (a loose gown, with a hood, worn over the uniform and belted) – though the djellaba was worn in the Tonkin highlands, especially during winter. The gandourah (loose, light khaki cotton “arabic” overshirt) was also fairly common. On their departure for Indochina, the goumiers were issued with colonial sun-helmets, but these were little worn, as were steel helmets. The favoured headgear was a turban formed from the chèche (in light khaki) or a bush-hat. French officers wore either a sky-blue kepi, or side-cap (light blue over sky blue).

Armament for the goumiers was as per the rest of the CEFEO; MAT 49 SMG, MAS 36 rifle, FM24/29 (LMG), Reibel MAC 31 MG, US MGs, and mortars in 60mm or 81mm calibres.

In August 1948, the 10e Tabor arrived in Indochina, followed by the 8e (December 1948) and 3e (June 1949). From June 1949, there were always three Tabors present in Indochina, forming the Groupement de Tabors Marocains d’Extrême Orient (GTMEO). Each Tabor was relieved after a two-year tour.

Operating principally in Tonkin (in the Red River Delta, the mountains of the Thai hill tribes, and the north-eastern border with China). In October 1950, they suffered heavy losses in the fighting along RC4, where the 8e Tabor was virtually annihilated. During 1952-3, the 9e Tabor was based on the highland of Central Annam, while others operated in Laos in 1953-4 (5e, then 10e and 8e Tabors). In total, nine Tabors served in Indochina, with two (the 8e and 10e) serving for a second tour. Their losses during the Indochina War were 16 officers, 41 NCOs and 730 goumiers killed.

The first spahi unit to arrive in Indochina after WW2 was the 7th Squadron of the Régiment de Marche de Spahis Marocains (RMSM), under Capt. Duplay, which served in Saigon for a year from 20/10/45, before returning to France.

Flag of Morocco during French protectorate (1906-1915)

Flag of Morocco (1915-present)

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