|Battle of Kolwezi|
|Part of Shaba II|
Mortar of the 2 REP in action
|Front for the National Liberation of the Congo (FNLC)|
|Commanders and leaders|
|Casualties and losses|
~250–400 dead and 160 captured
The Battle of Kolwezi was an airborne operation by French and Belgian airborne forces that took place in May 1978 in Zaire during the Shaba II invasion of Zaire by the Front for the National Liberation of the Congo. It aimed at rescuing European and Zairian hostages held by Front for the National Liberation of the Congo (FNLC) rebels after they conquered the city of Kolwezi. The operation succeeded with the liberation of the hostages and light military casualties.
Situation of Kolwezi
The city of Kolwezi is situated in the ore-rich region of Shaba (now Katanga), in the South-East of Zaïre (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). In 1978, the city held 100,000 inhabitants in a 40 km² urban area, with city quarters separated by hills. It is a strategic spot, as it lies on important roads and railroad lines that link Lubumbashi to Dilolo. There is an airport 6 km from the centre of the city.
Hostage taking by rebels
In March 1978, a meeting took place between Algerian and Angolan officials and militants of the FNLC. Zairian intelligence was made aware of a possible destabilisation operation in the Shaba region, which had a high value because of its mines of copper, cobalt, uranium and radium. For some months the Soviet Union had been purchasing all the cobalt available on the free market, but western intelligence did not connect this to the upcoming crisis. The FNLC operation was to be headed by Nathaniel Mbumba, with assistance from Cuban and East German officers.
In May 1978, an uprising took place in Katanga against President Mobutu. On 11 May, a 3,000 to 4,000 man strong FNLC rebel group arrived, accompanied by the 2nd Cuban Division; departing from Angola, it had crossed neutral Zambia. Upon arriving, they took about 3,000 Europeans as hostages and carried out various executions, particularly after the intervention of Zairian paratroopers on 18 May. Between 90 to 280 Europeans were killed.
From 15 May, hundreds of rebels started departing the city in stolen vehicles, leaving only 500 men led by Cubans, mostly were garrisoned in the quarter of Manika and in the suburbs.
President Mobutu requested foreign assistance from Belgium, France and the USA.
On 16 May at 0:45, the 2nd REP, led by Colonel Philippe Erulin, was put on alert. A meeting took place in West Germany between Belgian and French officials so as to coordinate a common operation; the meeting was a failure, as the French wanted to deploy their forces to neutralise the rebels and secure the city, while the Belgians wanted to evacuate foreigners. Eventually the Belgian Paracommando Regiment was sent independently. Meanwhile, elements of the planned operation started to leak into the press, causing fears that surprise would be lost if a swift action were not taken.
On 17 May, soldiers of the 2e REP embarked in 4 DC-8s of the French airline UTA and were flown from Solenzara in Corsica to Kinshasa. Heavy equipment followed in a Boeing 707, arriving on the 18th at 23:15. Preparation took place at Kinshasa military airport, notably instruction in using American parachutes that took place on the night of 18/19 May. A briefing also took place, given by Colonel Gras, the military attaché of the French embassy. At 11:00, the first wave took off in 2 French Transalls and 4 Zairian C-130 Hercules. Meanwhile, the Belgian Paracommandos were regrouping in Kamina.
The first C-130 of the Belgian Air Force took off on 18 May at 13:15 from Melsbroek Air Force Base, bound for Kamina via Kinshasa. At the time authorisation for the crossing of French airspace had not yet been given, and it was obtained just as the third C-130 was taking off. 36 hours afterwards, the Paracommando Regiment was deployed in Zaire and ready for action.
French Bonite (or Léopard) and Belgian Red Bean Operations
On 19 May the 2e REP were flown from Kinshasa to Kolwezi, 1500 km away. At 14:30, a 450-man first wave jumped from a 250-metre altitude into the old hippodrome of the city. The drop was performed under fire from light infantry weapons, and six men were wounded as they landed, while another was isolated from his unit, killed and mutilated in the street before even removing his parachute.
A violent firefight ensued in the streets, while French snipers started picking out threatening rebels, killing 10 of them at 300 metres with the newly introduced FR F2 rifle prototypes. European hostages and those who had been able to hide started to come under the control and protection of the French. A rebel column, led by an AML vehicle, attempted a counter-attack that was stopped around 15:00 near the railway station by rocket fire. Using infantry tactics, the REP quickly neutralised all rebel groups in the city.
At 18:00, the city was under French control and mostly secured. During the night, rebels attempted to infiltrate but were stopped by an ambush prepared by the French Foreign Legion.
On the night of 19/20 May, further fighting occurred. On the 20th, at 6:30, another wave of 250 paratroopers (the 4th company and the exploration and reconnaissance section) was dropped east of the city, taking rebel positions from behind and occupying this part of the city before noon. This group entered the P2 quarter and discovered the massacres that had occurred there.
On 20 May, the Paracommando Regiment landed on the airport and headed towards the city on foot. Elements of the French Foreign Legion opened fire and a few exchanges occurred before the units identified each other; the incident did not cause casualties. The Belgians then entered Kolwezi and started evacuating Europeans towards the Airport, leaving the securing of the city to the French. The first hostages were evacuated to Europe at noon.
The day after the airport was retaken, President Mobutu arrived in person to boost troop morale and reassure the population; he seized the opportunity to parade several European corpses in Villa P2. This struck western public opinion and led to a widespread acceptance of the decision by the Elysée to launch the operation. Pierre Yambuya later reported that the Europeans of Villa P2 had in fact been executed by troops of Colonel Bosange because Mobutu wished to provoke an international intervention.
Initially ordered to stay for 72 hours at most, the Belgians ended up staying over a month, along with Moroccan troops, supplying the population with food and maintaining order.
On the afternoon of 20 May, Metalkat (now Metal-Shaba) was taken by the 2 REP, forcing 200 rebels away. Sergent-Chef Daniel was killed during the fight. This swift operation provided the paratroops with the surprise element that they exploited, capturing the centre of the city. Within two days, the entire city was under control, and 2,800 Europeans were secured and evacuated on 21 May.
The entire region soon came under control of French and Belgian paratroops, until they were relieved by an African force led by Morocco and comprising Senegal, Togo and Gabon. Between the departure of the French and the arrival of the Inter-African force, Kolwezi was under control of Mobutu's force, who arrested and executed hundreds, labeled as "rebels".
2,200 Europeans and 3,000 Africans were evacuated, while 60 Europeans and about 100 Africans were massacred.
The FNLC lost about 400 killed and 160 prisoners, while 1,500 light and heavy weapons were seized, notably 10 heavy machine guns, 38 light machine guns, 4 artillery pieces, 15 mortars and 21 rocket launchers. Also, 2 AMLs were destroyed.
The 311th Zairian Paratrooper Battalion lost 14 killed and 8 wounded. 700 African civilians and 170 Europeans were killed during the entire operation. The operation was an illustration of the efficiency and effectiveness of light infantry when used with the element of surprise and with good intelligence and logistics.
Mobutu's regime was strengthened and Franco-Zairian military cooperation was increased. French industrial groups, notably Thomson-CSF, CGE and Péchiney, made notable increases in market share in Zaire.
- magazine n° 264, mai 2008, p.45, Il y a trente ans la légion sautait sur Kolwezi, par Jean-Marc Tanguy
- Pierre Yambuya, L'Abattoir, édition E.P.O., 1980, p.57
- Jean Kanyarwunga, République démocratique du Congo Publibook 2006, P.196
- La voix du combattant N°1736
- Cahiers du Retex n° 12, p 30
- Le Sahara occidental, enjeu maghrébin,page 304
- (French) Opération Léopard - Kolwezi 17 mai-16 juin 1978, Chemins de mémoire
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Battle of Kolwezi.|
- La Légion saute sur Kolwezi, by Raoul Coutard (1980)
- Kolwezi, la part de la Légion, by Frédéric Bouquet - ECPAD - Available from www.ecpad.fr
- Légion je t'accuse, La face cachée de Kolwezi, by Roger Rousseau,  Ed. Rexy, 2006
- Kolwezi L'Avènement d'un officier sans Honneur, by Raymond Regnier,  Ed. Rexy, 2008
Note: "Roger Rousseau" and "Raymond Regnier" are both pseudonyms of the same person, a former legionary of the 3rd company 2 REP who deserted.
- Pierre Sergent, La Légion saute sur Kolwezi Opération Léopard, Presses de la cité, 1978 ISBN 978-2-266-00676-7
- (French) (English) Général Gausserès, Les enseignements de Kolwezi - Mai 1978', Cahiers du Retex n° 12, supplément à Objectif doctrine 37 (PDF) (published by the Centre de doctrine de l'emploi des forces, French Ministry of Defence). p 27-31.
- Ligne de Front n°1, September 2006, "1978, le REP saute sur Kolwezi"
- Kanyarwunga Jean, République démocratique du Congo : Les générations condamnées, Publibook, 2006 ISBN 2-7483-3343-8
- (French) Site about the Battle of Kolwezi
- (French) Chronology of events
- (English) Shaba II: The French and Belgian Intervention in Zaire in 1978, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas P. Odom, US Army
- (French) Television reports, Institut national de l'audiovisuel
- (French) online book by Jean I.N. Kanyarwunga, République démocratique du Congo Publibook 2006
|This page uses Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia (view authors).|