The Moorish Wanderer

War and Politics in Western Sahara: the 1956-1958 Campaign

And I finally got it! the absolute reference on ALM operations in Spanish Western Sahara. Mohamed Bensaid Ait Idder published “Epic pages of the Liberation Army in the Moroccan South” in July 2001 -and I was so far unable to find it in a library or bookstore (yes, it is a borrowed one…) the great thing about the account M. Ait Idder gives of these operations is that it does not stop at the unfortunate ending of Moroccan operations on Spanish and French-held Sahara, but rather describes in documented details the political intrigue surrounding these operations, the delicate political balances it influenced, during times of a race for power in a freshly independent Morocco.

As early as July 1956, High-ranking French officials expressed worries as to the growing activities of the Moroccan Liberation Army South of Draa valley, indeed, French Colonies Minister, Gaston Defferre wrote to his colleague Maurice Bourges-Maunoury on July 18th, 1956:

Gathered intelligence suggests likely imminent attacks against North Mauritania launched by Moroccans from the Liberation Army units stationed in Draa valley, Algerian, Moroccan or Spanish-born moors, more or less supported by warring tribes from the said region.” (Translated from Michel-Ivan Louilt, 2009)

These tumultuous times spared no country involved in the area: France has gone past the fail-safe point in Algeria when the Guy Mollet government called in the reserves; in Morocco, the monarchy was ambivalent in its dealings with the MLA- on the one hand, it was only fair game the King Mohamed V and his son the Crown Prince Hassan were keen to gain control over the MLA, but on the other hand, the regular armed forces were no match, and “assimilation” was not a frank success, as former MLA fighters rather preferred migrating South to liberate territories still under French and Spanish control. To some of the MLA leadership, their activities were a legitimate endeavour to shape the “Great Morocco” project, Allal El Fassi‘s brainchild, but also, as the continuing struggle with Algerian and Mauritanian brethren to achieve Maghreb independence. The Great Morocco map went deep South, all the way down to the Senegal river, while it claimed large chunks as its Eastern borders territories from Algerian and Mali Sahara.

Though Spain did not involve itself directly during World War II, it was still a junior European power even by post-1945 standards; Consequently, its colonial representatives -in 1957, General Rojo was the commanding officer Of Ifni, Seguiet El Hamra and Rio de Oro troops, and later on, General Zamalloa- had tremendous difficulties in reigning in MLA activities on territories theoretically under its control. Instead, Spanish authorities in Western Sahara adopted a more conciliatory attitude, and even allowed MLA units to settle in, with its main Headquarters located in Guelmim, “The Doors to the Desert”.

Spanish soldiers garrisoning outposts near El-Aiun (probably 1957-58) - Picture El Pais

In the MLA leadership’s minds, the main -if not the sole- enemy was the French Army, including those officers heading the Bureaux des Affaires Indigenes. Spain on the other hand, was considered a little less short of an ally, and initially firm orders were issued to MLA fighters not to organize operations against Spanish garrisons in Sidi Ifni and Ait Baamrane (that was also due to the fact that most of Francisco Franco’s inner circle was, up to mid-1956, made up of fiercely anti-French Phalangist old guard). As early as July 1956, violent engagements between MLA and French units happened in Foum Alachir (July 6th 1956) Mergala (August 8th 1956), and M’hamid Ghizlane (December 6th 1956) to name a few. However, the initial Spanish neutrality turned sour, and numerous arrests and crackdowns on resistant networks soon prompted MLA high command into directing its units against a once benevolent colonial occupier. Indeed:

“The Ifni War, sometimes called the Forgotten War (La Guerra Olvidada) in Spain, began in earnest on November 23rd, fifty years ago today. The Moroccan Liberation Army was now no longer tied down in conflicts with the French, and could thus commit a significant portion of its resources and manpower to the capture of Spanish possessions. The Spanish Legion repulsed the Moroccan drive easily, but two Spanish outposts were abandoned in the face of enemy attacks. Many others remained under heavy siege.

In the space of two weeks, the Moroccans and their tribal allies had asserted control over most of Ifni, isolating inland Spanish units from their South-Moroccan capital. Simultaneous attacks had been launched throughout Spanish Sahara, overrunning garrisons and ambushing convoys and patrols. (Source)”

From a purely technical point of view, figures were not on the MLA’s side: its 13 regional commands could field at most 3908 troops (including some 200 in training) equipped with heterogeneous arsenal. After Spain had dispatched two units of its Legion, total Spanish forces in their part of Western Sahara amounted to 9000, not to mention the considerable advantage they hold in terms of air-power and mechanized hardware. Still, in view of the versatile and experimented MLA troops in desert-warfare, as well as the political and material support local Sahrawi tribes provided to these units, initiative and audacity allowed MLA commandos to obtain significant victories: attacks on isolated outposts, or even a full-scale siege on Sidi Ifni and El-Aiun made Spanish presence in these parts of the Sahara very uncertain.

MLA troops near Sidi Ifni, 1957.

The French army, on the other hand, experienced brief exchanges of fire with MLA, first in the TInduf and Colomb-Bechar sector (MLA Central Command considered those to be rightfully Moroccan territories still occupied by the French) and then South of Rio De Oro, when France decided to include Mauritania in its brand new “Union Française” in 1956. Again, MLA leadership, in accordance with El Fassi’s “Great Morocco” design, considered Mauritania to be equally part of our national boundaries. The ease and the amount of destruction inflicted by Benhamou’s troops North of Fort-Trinquet prompted the French into seeking schemes to eliminate once and for all an increasingly annoying MLA activity and a roadblock to its support for Mauritania as a future nation: indeed, many officials from Mauritanian tribes (like Prince Val Uld Umeir) rallied behind MLA and King Mohammed V, as these notabilities represented large and diverse groups of Mauritanian tribes.

November 23rd 1957 saw the first wave of large-scale attacks on Spanish outposts protecting Sidi Fini: Tighna, Thlath Issoubya, Taberkukt, Ithneen Ait Atissimur and Taliwyn. These outposts were outrun after two weeks of fierce battles. To that effect, MLA headquarters in Guelmim committed about 600 troops, among which 140 locals from Ait Baamrane earmarked for the capture of Sidi Ifni itself.

Originally, the attack was supposed to be stealthy and secretive, so as to seize not only all of the outposts ringing Sidi Ifni, but the city itself with minimal or no combat at all. The surprise attack scheme turn out to be a failure partly because of poor, inadequate preparation to the task at hand, and also because of the damaging effects leaked intelligence to the Spaniards had on the attack’s effectiveness. These pieces of intelligence were leaked, it seems, from obscure interests in Rabat and Agadir.

If Sidi Ifni was a semi-failure, other ventures were more successful: El Aiun, Smara, Aoucerd, Cap Bojdor and Bir N’Zaran were seized, or at least captured for hours and days until the Spanish garrisons broke the siege, but only temporarily. In desert warfare, number and equipment do not make a difference. It is worth pointing out that MLA operations were a logistical nightmare: following accounts of the total arsenal at their disposal from 1956 to 1960, weapons from Spain, France, Belgium, Switzerland, United Kingdom, United States, Germany and Czechoslovakia meant at least 30 different types of ammunition, as weapons varied from pre-WW1 French rifles Chassepots to modern Submachinegun MAT-49, but most MLA troopers were issued with Italian rifles Mannlicher-Carcano (1012) and Spanish Oviedo M93 (837)

The following lists the significant items in MLA weaponry, as of February 1958:

– German MP40 Submachinegun………………………………………30

– German MP38 Submachinegun………………………………………13

– German Kar98 Bolt-action rifle……………………………………….25

– German MG42 Heavy Machinegun………………………………….82

– French MAS36 Bolt-action rifle……………………………………….87

– French Lebel Bolt-action rifle………………………………………..224

– Spanish Oviedo M93 Bolt-action rifle………………………………837

– Spanish Argo Heavy Machinegun………………………………….277

– French Hotchkiss Heavy Machinegun…………………………………1

– American Thompson Submachinegun……………………………….15

– American M1A1 Automatic carbine………………………………….16

– American M20 Bazooka AT gun…………………………………………1

– Italian Mannlicher-Carcano Bolt-action rifle……………………1012

– Italian Breda Machinegun………………………………………………10

– British Lee-Enfield SMLE………………………………………………..45

– Czech 33/40 Bolt-action rifle…………………………………………122

all in all, between 30 and 40 different calibres are required for this diverse arsenal and other items like hunting rifles and various side-arms. In addition, The striking feature of MLA arsenal is its lightness. Other than 60mm and 82mm mortars (about 8 of them) the heaviest weapon remains one M20 “Bazooka” recoilless anti-tank gun. Quartermasters at Guelmim and Agadir, as well as representatives sent abroad to buy weapons and ship them to Morocco needed to be extremely careful in their purchases and choices. France and Spain however, relied solely on less than a dozen of calibres when issuing weapons to their troops, and could field artillery (mortars, guns and howitzers) as well as APCs and light tanks, when MLA troopers were only camel-borne. Nonetheless, victories were achieved against Spaniards all the way down to Laguerra thanks to MLA high spirit, skills and dedication to the liberation of Western Sahara.

Dead legionnaires near Sidi Ifni after a MLA attack, 1957 (source: Arxxiduc)

the 9000-strong Spanish forces were not, at first, made of front-line troops: most of those soldiers staffing outposts scattered across the desert belonged to disciplinary companies, ill-equipped, ill-commanded and with no will to die to defend a waterhole, a wells or oasis. They fled their positions when the fight was too fierce. Even the Legionnaires and paratroopers the Spanish high command sent as reinforcement to Sidi Ifni, EL Aiun and Villa Cisneros (Dakhla) garrisons did not deter MLA fighters from storming the enemy with all their might. But the conjugated effect of French air power and the denied access to Spanish territory lead to the dissolution or destruction of MLA presence south of Sidi Ifni.

As mentioned before, French High Command in West Africa and Algeria was very keen on the destruction of any armed resistance, whether from Algeria or Morocco: the Suez failure and the Algerian war convinced the French that something needed to be done about Algerian FLN activities in general as well as MLA raids near Tinduf and Colomb-Bechar in particular. To that effect, the commanding officer, General Bourgund (former commander of French troops in Morocco) needed the precise location of Moroccan “mobs”, their strength, fire power and supporting tribes. Intelligence work and activity was therefore assigned to the POMI –Bureau Politico-Militaire– officers, so as to dissociate MLA fighters from Sahrawi tribes, and denounce them as Soviet-backed agitators. M.I. Louit reports Spanish propaganda was to portray the MLA as:

“an instrument of the USSR […] and that Allal El Fassi and his (sic) Army of Liberation are bad Muslims serving Russia, enemies of God and traitors to the Sultan”

The plan Generals Borgund (France) and Zamalloa (Spain) agreed on early 1958 was to be carried out in three phases:

Preliminary phase: Spanish forces to occupy Draa causeways North of parallel 27º40 and deny access from both directions (i.e. to prevent flights and reinforcements)

Phase 2: Spaniards would move South from El Aiun to meet the French as their troops attack North of Fort Trinquet, so as to block MLA regional HQ (Commander Benbrahim) to that effect, the French commit their Foreign Legion (1er REI) and various CSMs (Compagnie Saharienne Motorisee) as well as the 7th RPC (Paratroopers)

Phase 3: Spanish and French troops from Smara jointly attack, the former North-East and the latter South. Spain carries out further attacks from Villa Cisneros.

By late Feburary 1958, all significant MLA activities South of parallel 27º40 would have been disrupted and its units dispersed or destroyed. (click to get a more detailed view)

France divided its forces in 4 main task forces, with Fort Trinquet and Fort Gouraud as their starting bases:
– Taskforce “Grall”, to attack Tifariti from Ft. Trinquet
– Taskforce “Vidal”, to attack Guelta Zemmour from Ft. Trinquet as well.
– Taskforce “Tinduf” to attack Tifariti from the North and liaise with Groupement Grall.
– Taskforce “Sud” to attack Bir N’Zaran with the Spaniards and clear the way in the Rio De Oro. Taskforce “Sud” was reinforced with smaller units near Zug and Atar to provide support.

Operation Ecouvillon: 8th to 23rd of February

Spanish troops were, on the other hand, reinforced garrisons from coastal cities prepared to attack.

Overall, French and Spanish troops would have committed about 14,000 troops, 130 war-planes (mostly for transport, observation and ground-attacks) and no less than 700 vehicles varying from GMC 6×6 trucks to light tanks M5 “Stuart” and M24 “Chaffee” and light recon vehicles like the M8 “Greyhound” and EBRs. Artillery, ranging from 60mm light mortar to heavy 105mm howitzer was often brought to bomb MLA strongholds away from Guelbs and Canyons they were holding to. As for planes, France relied on medium bomber Glenn-Martin B26 and ground attack plane T6 to disperse and destroy Camel herds suspected to belong to MLA groups or loyal tribes. Similarly, Spanish troops used Nord-Atlas 2501 and Dakota C-47 to carry paratroopers and cut MLA from supply and escape routes.

Against overwhelming odds, MLA fighters did the best they could, but ultimately failed and were bitterly defeated and chased away from Western Sahara, for good. General Bourgund paid a martial tribute to his enemy by writing:

“The enemy doesn’t fight in daylight. However, he is much more aggressive at night; he is endowed with an amazing ability to use the ground to his advantage, his marksmanship and his strength to carry out long and exhausting marches make him a worthy adversary. If surprise favours him, he withdraws at night and the next day, camps some 50 to 70 kilometres away from the ambush, or chooses to join safe haven beyond the border”. (Louit, p.107)

Engin Blindés de Reconnaissance (EBR) unit awaiting orders. French army used many of these to crush MLA activities (Picture ECPAD)

Accounts conflict on the kind of provided intelligence that tipped the balance and gave away MLA units: A first version claims Spanish observers reported minute details to the French, and these corroborate them with accounts from local intelligence (Ait Idder refers to them euphemistically as “French agents”) i.e. from sources inside and in high places in Morocco. French sources however, while disparaging Spanish contribution to Ecouvillon-Teide, seem to favour the “inside theory”, namely that French intelligence in Morocco, with the assistance of Moroccan officials, has managed to compile considerable information on MLA positions and activities. These sources (and Abdellah Ibrahim seem to agree with these accounts) specify these “High ranking officials” as officials close to Mohamed Laghzioui -former head of security and a familiar of crown prince Hassan II- and various officers in the Moroccan Army (FAR) many of whom served with the French Army during WW2 and Indochina campaigns, and kept close ties with French officers still in place after 1956.

It is also fair to say that the Crown Prince was regularly briefed by MLA leadership on ongoing operations, he, at the same time, was on a constant liaison with French officers, as well as American intelligence (in the person of Commodore Leo Blair). It is a known and documented fact (comprehensively reported in Ignace Dalle’s latest book) France regarded the Crown Prince as a trustworthy ally, who in return expressed a desire in weeding out opposition and remaining a strong partner to France.

MLA field commanders meeting with Spanish Colonel to negotiate passage across the border. From left to right: Benhamou, Col. Chass (Spain) Manouzi, Benacher and Bouida.

The MLA, in that respect, was therefore standing against two enemies: France, as the colonial ruler of Algeria and Mauritania, had interest in eliminating any armed resistance, even on Spanish territory. the Crown Prince considered these valiant resistants as potential rivals and a threat to his own ambition and thrust for power.

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  3. […] War and Politics in Western Sahara: the 1956-1958 Campaign And I finally got it! the absolute reference on ALM operations in Spanish Western Sahara. Source: […]

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