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.

Founding Myths and the Green March

Posted in Flash News, Moroccan ‘Current’ News, Moroccanology, Morocco by Zouhair ABH on November 6, 2010

That’s today apparently. the Green March I mean. As I am writing those lines, I am awaiting by the speech His Majesty the King delivers on that occasion. Awaiting because of the recent troubles down under, at Agdayme Izik near Laayoune in the Sahara.

Dissidents' camps (source: Le Soir-Echos)

These protesters camped up in hundreds and thousands (15.000-20.000 following various sources), apparently expressing their ras-le-bol of a situation that is, to put it euphemistically, delicate.  Will he mention this formidable show of force? Threaten or Assure the dissident masses?

The reason why I wrote this post is not the Green March anniversary itself. I have been baffled by the sheer alacrity a colleague blogger displayed on celebrating the Green March (on Tweeter that is. He did not have the wit to write something up about this glorious second ملحمة الملك و الشعب). Now I am no iconoclast, in the sense that I believe every state-nation, real or artificial, needs founding myths. And Morocco is no exception to that. I am just surprised that someone like him, so well-taught and of such keen insight could be so blatantly blinded by mere propaganda. Why would I then demur the Green March as a founding myth? In broad terms, because it is the founding myth of one side in the Moroccan political spectrum, i.e. the monarchy. We live in interesting times, where one is required to be a patriot, though prevented from lifting the veil off some unpleasant truths. So to the benefit of the one watching us, I would like to remind him of some facts about the Sahara case. what is the fuss about the Green March? I mean any sane individual would note that Morocco got its independence out of France and Spain like a mortgage payment: French zone first, Northern Spanish zone afterwards, then bits and chunks until late 1960’s, when it was sort of frozen up until early 1970’s, when late king Hassan II got things heated up in Morocco to finally reach its apex with November 6th, 1975. Oh, another thing that bemuses me, Rio de Oro and Mauritania. How come a territory that was Mauritanian, and accepted as such by Moroccan authorities (as part of the signed tripartite treaty signed November 1975) was swiftly claimed as own after they pulled out of the Desert war? And how come the Monarchy toned down so vividly the claims on Mauritania itself? My claim is, the Green March, and beyond that, the Sahara issue was means to an end. It was a nationalistic move to overcome the increasing remoteness the monarchy was in. It succeeded in gathering popular support as well as extracting a nation-wide consensus from political parties; Nonetheless, and it is certainly not out of malicious thought, one cannot standby idly looking on a propaganda piece -a successful one, not because it is so, but because generations of Moroccans believe in it.

The Green March walkers, holding flags and portaits of King Hassan II, November 1956

To be sure, the sight of 350.000 peaceful demonstrators hurdling towards the border is chilling to say the least. The vermilion forest of national flags and the remarkable devotion of the walkers boosts up one’s nationalist pride (yes, even the radical crypto-communist nihilist has nationalist feelings). The Green March hymn burnishes the whole thing up. But it eludes an array of facts that are either ill-known to the general public -and it seems, to some of the would be elite- or just belittled because they do not fit their respective weltschaaung. Why, the mere fact that the same monarchy prevented -indirectly of course, and for matters of internal politics- some patriots from defeating the French-Spanish occupation of the Sahara and restoring it back to the Moroccan rule should refrain one from being ecstatic about the Green March; It was no a matter of gaining back our rightful soil, merely a short-term political move that developed into a matter of legitimacy.

Morocco gained formally its independence March 2nd, 1956 following the Saint-Cloud Treaty undoing the Fès treaty -thus effectively ending the French protectorate- (another myth was to promote November 18th as independence day, the day Sultan Mohammed V went back from his exile, while Morocco was still under French and Spanish rule). the Northern zone was retro-ceded to the newly independent Morocco in April 1956. Nothing was said about the Spanish Western Sahara that the Moroccan nationalists -not the monarchy- were claiming as part of Morocco; Indeed the monarchy was much suspicious in its own discretion during this period. Truth of the matter is, it was busy strengthening its hold on power, especially the crown-prince, to the expenses of the other major political players. If it so sordid politics, why an overwhelming majority of Moroccans still identify more closely with the Sahara issue than any other issue, seemingly closer to their common, everyday shores: consumer prices, and level of wages for instance? I would like to venture some explanation by taking a leaf out of “Psychologie des Foules” by a 19th century right-wing positivist Gustave Le Bon. The whole idea of using signs and symbols that are sympathetic to the masses, or in an almost bawdy way, to their instincts is well described in his book: “La foule, jouet de tous les stimulants extérieurs, en reflète les incessantes variations. Elle est donc esclave des impulsions reçues. […] On peut physiologiquement définir ce phénomène en disant que l’individu isolé possède l’aptitude à dominer ses réflexes, alors que la foule en est dépourvue.” I wouldn’t go as far as describing the whole propaganda behind the Green March as one of Pavlovian inspiration, but when one looks at the cornucopia of flags, korans, portraits of the king, and the enthusiastic tune -the famous نداء الحسن– are close to external stimulii. That was in 1975. From that year onward, TV, education, books, newspapers, all possible means of communication have been more or less explicitly marshalled into supporting the cause, effectively waving the patriotic flag whenever internal difficulties arise.

Far from me denigrating the founding myth the Green March became over the years (do I sound like I am?) my point is, the motivation behind it, namely the peaceful demotic demonstration fro bringing back the Sahara to the Morocco has not been motivated by selfless, patriotic means to a rightful end. It is the starting point of a purely political gambling, and the denouement of a hypocritical policy the monarchy followed since the days of independence. How could one be uncompromising about Moroccan Sahara, while they were in the past silent about it, or about the Mauritanian claim too? And why prevent equally if not even more fiercely patriotic people from taking it away militarily -with greater glory no doubt- when they had the means, the motives and good likelihood to achieve it. It is, quite simply, a call for sanity: cheer the green march as you want, cherish it as a founding moment of Moroccan pride and history. Don’t spoil it by ignoring its political backdrops and the hidden conflict for influence that laid behind it. If there’s one thing that can advance the cause, it is surely, for the Moroccan regime, to recognize its past lapses, and be open about it to the widest extent possible. Can one presume things will be dealt with in a reasonable and a grown-up manner? thank you.

Let me go gooey and optimistic a moment: an autonomous republic within a federal monarchy is just as fine a settlement solution as another. One could even think of the Polisario as some sort of regionalist party that would compete for the regional parliament just like federal-wide parties. This supposes that their hard-line people would come to terms (Morocco does not have hard-line people, ony warring tribal interests), that the corrupted officials from one side of the defence wall and the other are routed out, that Morocco delivered a clean bill of health on its constitutional reforms, and finally that the Algerian officials chose to focus on their home issues more courageously.

A Journey To the Museum

A few days ago, I paid a visit to the Resistance and Moroccan Liberation Army, a visit I was planning a long time ago, but kept cancelled because of unforeseen circumstances. I have now.
The museum itself is quite spacious. I was surprised, because when one gets in, the ground floor, though large, is relatively poorly furnished: a conference table with three or four chairs by your left, a huge wall full of pictures circa 1956 above it. On the right, the whole Alaouite dynasty, right from Moulay Ali Cherif to the King Mohammed V. I was at first skeptical about it all. What, the whole museum boils down to a few pictures. That’s not a museum, that’s an amateur exposition. Plus there was no one there. Admittedly, holidays and upcoming Ramadan explain it, though I am confident the representative Moroccan citizen has other areas of interest, hardly of historical nature, I guess.

The Conference table, and a large fresque on the background.

The guide then asked me if I wanted to go upstairs: There are other things to see in the 4th and 5th floors as well. Blimey, FIVE floors of relics and stuff related to the Resistance and Liberation Army!

I realized then a lot of money was put in this museum, which is ironic, considering how the monarchy was scared to death by any hypothetical threats the MLA or the urban resistance were to its hegemonic projects. That’s why the immediate years following independance were quite bloody, with the resistants betrayed and cutting each others’ throats, to the monarchy’s supreme benefit. Anyway, that’s the past, isn’t it? Plus the official line now is that of a very homogenous resistance, monarchists everyone last of them.

A very Soviet-like propaganda picture. I like how the star is shaped, very Soviet-like indeed.

I then proceeded to the second floor, with hardly any difference to the ground floor. It is all pictures and eulogies to the late King Mohammed V. Photographs of good quality, well framed and with interesting comments. I saw the crown prince Hassan in his Scout Uniform during the Sultan’s visit to Tangier, April 1947, of famous memory. In any case, it remains an invaluable heritage for the future generation to seek.

Then, the third and fourth floors turned out to be more interesting. You can find there relics from the glorious tale of urban resistance and feats of the MLA-North. Pistols, false papers, machine-guns… They even managed to display on dummies uniforms of the MLA, with the distinctive cap they wore. I didn’t find time for the rest of the museum, but It would be my pleasure to go back in there. Anyway, if you have some time to spare, pop out there, it’s really worth it!

Soldier, north sector. He is wearing the standard MLA cap, holding a (captured) French Sub-machine gun. Crica 1955.

More picture here.

A Journey In the Desert Part 4

Posted in Moroccan History & Sociology, Polfiction, The Wanderer by Zouhair ABH on August 2, 2010

Previously

Midday. Scorpions and snakes all over the place. The task force tried desperately not to use water that much, but in places like these, a mere drop of water on the ground gets the invisible wildlife out of their hideouts and look for the precious liquid, with the inevitable struggle for man to keep off the deadly strike. After some tribesmen had joined the growing crowd, it was decided to split the party in six sub-outfits, no more than 20-30 men-strong raiding force each, with occasional meetings for reports and resupply when time and opportunities permit.

Beforehand, the party organised itself in a long column, and then moved slowly towards the next checkpoint, a deep ridge secure enough to operate the dispatch and send out the orders. This was a moment in which the column was at its most vulnerable state, for the men dismounted from their camels and unloaded their supplies. They looked defenceless, as indeed they were, for they had to look after their cooking, or to get some rest to recover from the exhausting raiding parties, or to spend some leisure time for rhetorical argument or tale telling. The wilaya, when peaceful, was more of a group of shepherds looking after their flocks, than an aggressive outfit seeking and destroying.

At the ridge, Ayour gathered his men, and proceeded with the regular reading of the latest dispatches. The raids they carried out near Sidi Ifni were successful on the whole, all of which are prelude to a large-scale offensive scheduled next month against the city itself. In the event of a success, the Spanish might accept it as a fait accompli, and call truce for negotiations. However, Sidi Ifni was just a phase, a preliminary stage to a much wider, much more ambitious offensive. Already the other Wilayas are strangling Spanish strongholds and inflicting great damage their presence on the Western Sahara is more and more questionable, Ayour thought it to be more than lyrical propaganda, he could see it in the field with his column getting luckier by the day in its happy and deadly raids.

The next weeks were quieter. much of the operations were punctual harassment around the wells, long-range reconnaissance and occasional night-raids, with endless afternoons arguing with the tribes in order to gain their loyalty. The raids were randomly successful, for the MLA had to rely on its loot, as the supplies from Morocco had to cross farther to get to destination. Apart from the herds the allied tribes fed on, there was not much to look for. Within months, the wilaya disrupted much of the outposts, cut much of communication lines and capture amounts of supplies so important that the Spanish, on the verge of loosing grip on the immediate outskirts of Sidi Ifni as well as the city itself, decided to move some front-line troops in. The Foreign Legion was therefore the provide garrison for Sidi Ifni, Villa Cisarenos and Cap Juby, as well as some strategic wells along the coast. The inland desert, however, was left undefended before the MLA.

La Ferte kept receiving the Spanish reports. He was puzzled: the mobs attack in small numbers, in Commando-style. A couple of mortar shells, lightning-bolt attacks and constant overrunning of small outposts. When the attack was unsuccessful, no wounded and no corpses were left on the battlefield. Truly the most formidable enemy ever. La Ferte knew the MLA had the support of the Reguibat and Oulad Dlim, as well as other tribes, the desert was turning more and more pro-Moroccan. As the key man in field intelligence, he was, despite being of junior rank, at the centre of a huge conspiracy.

He knew the Monarchy was at odds with the MLA and some elements of the Istiqlal party. His contacts in Rabat and Agadir mentioned an ambiguous behaviour from the Crown Prince and his aides towards the MLA. Officially, Morocco does not recognize the MLA as such, but in practise, weapons and supplies are flowing from Agadir southwards. The truth however, was that the Moroccan position was more of a conflictual nature than a carefully laid plan. In his intelligence work, his assessment of the Monarchy’s stand was, without doubt, as an ally to France.

La Ferte, in his sketches for intelligence warfare strategy, put forward a couple of proposals. He called for labelling the MLA mob as communists and atheists, because in his opinion that would give a good scope of the wider claim that the Soviet Union wants to destroy Islam in North Africa, that Egypt is their puppet there and that their projects were a danger to Islam in the Arab world. Then, he managed to gather some sympathetic locals and successfully managed to make the idea of creating a country West of the AOF inevitable. Mauritania, he thought, would be an invaluable ally for France’s stand there. The Union Française won’t last much longer, and the soon-to-become independent African countries will need French support against any communist infiltration. Furthermore, La Ferte was very fond of the saying “Divide & Rule”.  Mauritania as a country would effectively weaken the Moroccan nationalists and left-wingers and give France a “second front” from which it could concentrate on its present plight, the troubles in Algeria as well.

The French officer had other plans for the short term. As the executive commander of the Ad Hoc unit, the 4th CMSM (Compagnie Mixte Saharienne Motorisee). This outfit consists mainly of veteran Legionnaires and Meharistes from other units, would provide the reconnaissance support for the upcoming offensive scheduled for early spring 1958. Time is of the essence in order to insure the crushing of the impudent mobs.

Picture from a website dedicated to the Spanish Airforce

A Journey In the Desert Part 3

a month later…

The quiet dawn was torn up when the first rounds were fired on the Spanish stronghold. The Spaniards, mostly conscripts or servicemen were astonished at first, then horrified when they discovered that a direct hit blown up their radio station. Farewell their hopes to get reinforcements or even ammo and food. They were no professional soldiers, and those stationed in the desert loath everyday their bad luck. Standing by them were some Tropas Nomadas. These are locals the Spaniards rely on as their guides, their escort and occasionally their workforce to police some troublesome tribe. The most experienced officers knew how to use the ancestral rivalry between the tribes, but couldn’t be sure of their entire submission. The Sahrawis took the bribe, accepted the honours, nonetheless they had nothing but contempt -save for some extraordinary occurrences- for the Nassranis. The Tropas felt even more let down, and some of them have already defected with their rifles and their priceless experience to serve the MLA by the time Ayour’s task force reached their target. the MLA’s spirit was quite high, as they had assurance many other auxiliaries wanted to take up arms with them and drive the Spaniards out. All the night long, Ayour and his new men started a stealth reconnaissance of the surroundings for the scheduled assault at dawn.

When they got back to their camp, He found the men already feasting on a camel they slaughtered for the occasion. The battle will turn them into one outfit, he hoped. Only in the battle does the comradeship become true, he experienced it with the Rif veterans, for they came from all over Morocco and ended up fighting together. “Tomorrow is another day, let us now get some rest”.

First mortar rounds. Explosions. bullets zigzagging all over the place. He felt breathless. An understatement of his state right then. He couldn’t feel his legs though he was surprised he had such strength to run so fast. The assault on the tiny Spanish outpost east of Sidi Ifni begun, first thing in the morning. After a brief mortar shelling, he led his party across 600 meters or so to get to the outpost. To his right, he saw two men fall, deadly shot. He had a ridiculous thought about it, because it looked as though they fell stupidly, like they couldn’t get up on their legs, and suddenly, the crumbled like a pile of cards, or an amateur building with shaky foundations. He found it even strange to have such thoughts at a time where the mind is like muted out, and were the basic thinking is devoted to the one aim that matters: to get back to the other end of the ground. A couple of seconds later, he saw  three other guys fall, shot dead too. He guessed there was a machine gun nest somewhere on his right, so he nervously got a grenade out of his haversack, took the pin out but maintained its safety till he saw three tracing bullets flaring out of a dark smoky cloud a hundred meters far or so. He hated using grenades because he felt it was not a proper weapon. He was fond of his rifle, he didn’t mind using mortar when the occasion arises, but he hated using grenades. Not ‘man enough’ was his main reason. Besides, it does not kill as sure as a bullet or a bayonet blow does, and the result can be very ugly. He released the safety, threw his grenade as far as his arm could and dove to the ground, waiting for the explosion. A small earthquake followed, silencing the nest. And just as the warring noise came all of the sudden, a deadly silence took over, stressing the dramatic effect of smoke and dust. When it all settled down, he was relieved to see that the assault succeded, the outpost was overrun.

It was brief; no more than 15 minutes long. The survivors fled to the city while the MLA started checking the outpost. Nothing much of a loot, Ayour noted. Some rifles to equip the Reguibats, some grenades for training maybe. The prize was the machine gun he spotted earlier on. Luckily, the piece of equipment was not badly damaged by the shrapnels, but it was too heavy to be carried out. He decided to hand it to the Reguibat boss as a war trophy, a gesture that enhanced even more the MLA reputation.

After the loot, came the mourning. The dead were buried, the wounded were however a handicap. Right from the beginning, Ayour knew strategic supplies, especially medicine, were scarce among the MLA. They had to capture some from the enemy, or make use of every resource they can get, which is virtually impossible in the desert. The party was in a chance because the local nursery had a small stockpile of morphine, which was used to alleviate the wounded suffering. The decision was made to get them back to the departure point and recover. The campaign was just starting, and the battle group could not be slowed unnecessarily. In any case, corpses were pulled back from the battlefield and buried hurriedly. Stealth and secrecy were the watchwords.

Meanwhile, a large French Air force Languedoc just landed on the small Las Palmas airport. La Ferté, with a top-ranking civil servant from the Ministère d’outre-Mer et des Colonies and the commander of  AOF (Afrique Occidentale Française), were to meet their opposite numbers in Spain to discuss the now serious situation in Spanish territory. Down the airport were the Commader of Spanish West Africa, his chief of staff, and the Airforce commander. No civilians, just the military. La Ferté thought they were old-fashioned. They were all wearing immaculate uniforms, shining knee-high boots, horse-riding breeches and collar-buttoned blouses decorated with impressive arrays of medals and awards. The contrast was stricking between the French three-stars general, dressed casually in his Saharienne, his baggy trousers closer to the Seroual than any Spanish regulation would allow for, and his Khaki béret, his Spanish counterpart on the other hand, was dressed in a uniform that did not change much since the Great War. No wonder they keep losing to the MLA mob was La Ferte sarcastic comment. The meeting seemed unreal, though La Ferté noted the Spanish willigness to turn the blind eye if the French were to chase the MLA on their side of the Sahara. In return, the French agreed to share their intelligence with the Spanish. They didn’t have to blow up much secrecy: It was a fact French military advisors in Morocco were quite influential, and many high-ranking Moroccan officials were on their payroll. There was even a rumour the Palace would be quite satisfied if the MLA was destroyed. The web of a nasty conspiracy were woven against the MLA.

MLA Flag, circa 1955 (I still have some doubts about the colours, the reference I checked on was black & white)