Le Mafia Anglais
Moe and I both joined the Royal Navy on the same day in the recruiting office in Liverpool’s Lime Street. Both being local lads, we soon became firm friends after going through the horrendous year at the infamous boy seamen’s training school of HMS Ganges. After passing out and going to the fleet we briefly served together on HMS Ark Royal and at some later point we got separated as our careers took different paths. We regularly corresponded and kept in touch with each other over the intervening years and even managed to meet up once under most unusual and strange circumstances
Moe soon became disillusioned with the naval life and after some initial problematic frustrations was able to arrange a transfer for himself into the British Army. He took to this new life with gusto and it soon became evident that Moe had found his true niche in life – being firmly in his element as a soldier rather than as a sailor. He gained promotion and eventually joined the Parachute Regiment.
Because of the clandestine nature of his group we lost touch for some years but I know now that he served with distinction in Malaya, and in quite a few of those now forgotten little wars that preceded the disintegration of remaining portions of the dwindling British Empire in the late fifties. He was by now a Sergeant and the recipient of numerous service decorations. My next meeting with Moe was to be quite bizarre.
I was aboard a Royal Navy warship on a courtesy visit to Cap Bon, in what was then French Algeria, just immediately prior to its independence from France. We had had a couple of days there and the crew had a good time ashore mixing with the locals. Two baby sailors had met a young Swede who was a deserter from the French Foreign Legion and in alcohol induced camaraderie had foolishly decided to stow him away aboard the ship so he could escape the country. Because of the terrorist situation in Algeria at the time our own alert status was high and the Swedish deserter was quickly discovered and brought before the Captain who, in turn informed the French military authorities of his whereabouts.
Some time later a military police vehicle duly arrived with regular French Army MP’s, followed by a jeep containing two very smart French Foreign Legion Chef-Sergeants in full immaculate dress uniforms. They were ushered to the Captain’s cabin and once there they formally took receipt of one deserter prisoner. The young Swede was handcuffed and chained and then unceremoniously trooped down the ship’s gangway by his MP escorts on his way into captivity.
At the time I was working on the jetty supervising some new engine spares that had been delivered by RFA and checking them off against the delivery paperwork when I was approached by this tall, slim and deeply tanned legionnaire. Removing his sunglasses he said, “Alright Pedro, how are you doing mate?” I looked inquisitively at this apparition in the precision pressed light khaki uniform with its gleaming badges and decoration ribbons that stood before me, and at the hawk like face beneath the peak of the black kepi that he wore. It finally dawned on me that this Beau Geste apparition standing before me was none other than my old shipmate Moe. We shook hands and I asked him what on earth he was doing in that rig and in Algeria. He replied, “It’s a long story mate and I’m a little busy at the moment as you can see. So see you in town this evening at the Pegasus bar at 2000 hours okay?” Almost speechless, I simply nodded my head, and with a grin he replaced his shades and stepped into the jeep and was gone in a sandy cloud of dust.
Situated on the main street of Cap Bon was the Pegasus Club set amongst the other colonial-style sandstone buildings that formed the main drag. It seemed to be full of legionnaires and French colonists from the area. Moe was waiting for me at the bar. After a few beers and talk about the old days his story finally emerged as the evening wore on. On leaving the Paras he had had a couple of jobs as bodyguard to certain political and foreign luminaries but found that he was no more cut out for civilian life than he had been for a naval one.
So he had taken himself off to Lille in France and joined the Legion. The life had been harsh and cruel at the start but due to his previous military expertise he had soon adapted and was rapidly promoted to Chef-Sergeant with the 2nd Regiment Legion Estrange Parachutists then based at Sidi-Bel-Abbes in Algeria. As all legionnaires in this multi-national force must speak only in French his biggest problem had been in learning the language. But as any early misunderstanding of given orders and commands are met by punches and kicks from the NCOs the incentive to learn, understand and survive was very strong and within six months Moe had become a fluent speaker. His written French skills were honed later on during his service career.
Although he had reached the lofty heights of NCO rank Moe assured me that his time in the Legion had been far from uneventful. He had once been reduced in rank for reasons that he later explained as behaviour unbecoming a Legionnaire. He had served his time in a regiment prison for this past misdemeanour which had been far from a petty offence. Much like the young Swede arrested today he told me that desertions were quite frequent in the Legion for a multiplicity of reasons. The majority were because the men had joined with romantic but unrealistic concepts of what Legion life would be like and ultimately found they could not handle the strict regimes. Others found that long periods of inaction or lack of real warfare whilst being subjected to the unrelenting bull and boredom of barracks life was not what they had joined up for.
Moe had found himself caught up in the latter group and thoughts of getting himself dismissed from the Legion were uppermost in his mind at that time. He had a group of like minded British friends in his regiment who were called Le Mafia Anglais by other legionnaires and officers because they were constantly together, inseparable and all troublemakers to a man. They were six in number, who had all come from other branches of the British Army prior to joining the Legion. Five were from the Parachute Regiment, and one from the Royal Marines. A formidable group of single-minded tough specialist soldiers it’s true, but on the other hand was the Foreign Legion, an equally tough specialist outfit, who were not about to have six misfits dictate to them what their terms of service should be, or to countenance any bad behaviour on any terms.
The Colonel commanding them had stopped their leave due to the many commotions they had caused on previous furloughs into nearby towns and civilian establishments. These were mostly bars which they had systematically wrecked on their frequent drunken fighting tirades. He was determined to split them up and transfer them to other FFL regiments around the world. He tried all sorts of other punishments at the onset like solitary confinement, stoppages of pay and demotions in rank to private, but these six always emerged unrepentant from their punishments and just as adamant that they would ‘work their tickets’ out of the Legion come what may.
So began the last stand of Le Mafia Anglais. One day they took over a canteen area on the sixth floor of the administration building one evening after burning the regimental flag of the regiment and French tricolour and throwing them out of one of the windows. The regimental flag is sacred to any Legion unit and no other insult could have been more calculated to incense and inflame the situation. The canteen had been strategically chosen because there was plenty of food, beer and wine available to sustain their siege of the admin block.
First the Military Police were called to subdue and arrest the rebel group who incidentally were without weapons and unarmed. They arrived in full combat gear and attacked the first landing in some force. They were met by the defenders now armed with pick handles and fire extinguishers. Once the sound of conflict had abated, some timid soul ventured onto the landing to find the defenders gone, and some 35 unconscious and seriously injured Military Police personnel lying in a neat human pile in the middle of the landing. From the landing above they could hear the loud drunken singing of obscene Legion songs by the victorious Mafia Anglais.
Day two saw detachments of the regular French Army in riot gear brought into the fray with similar results except for the number of casualties. Severe injuries were inflicted on 48 members of the Army most of whom required urgent hospital attention. None of the perpetrators had yet been disabled or arrested. Not wishing to face violence from these trained combat soldiers the police considered the canine option. Ten savage Dobermans and Rottweiller attack dogs were released to subdue the rebels and after much snarling and yelping their lifeless bodies were finally thrown down to the foyer floor all with their necks broken.
Days three and four were much the same with terrible injuries being inflicted on police and security forces attempting to dislodge the group. Finally, the frustrated Legion Colonel, disregarding the opinions and strategies of local law enforcement and military police commanders sent in a group of armed legionnaires to affect the arrest of the Mafia Anglais group. They were finally chained and transported to a military prison and duly court-martialled for their offences. They were sent to complete their hard-labour sentences in Djibouti, Tahiti, Mauretania and Moe was sent to French Guyana. The military prison in Guyana was much along the brutal lines of the old Devil’s Island and spartan in the extreme. He spent one year there breaking rocks in a quarry for 12 hours a day and being fed on bread, water and thin gruel for most of his time there. The only additional proteins to his diet were the insects and rodents that he managed to catch in his cell at night.
By the time he was released and returned to Algeria the revolution was now in full swing and there was more than enough fighting to suit the most disenchanted soldiers in the Legion. Moe was actively involved fighting Arab terrorists and eventually regained his former rank of Chef-Sergeant. The other five duly completed their sentences and returned to active duty but all in different areas of Algeria. All six have somehow been woven into the legendary tapestry of the modern-day Legion that survives to this day.
Many years after this meeting, on checking the official Foreign Legion annals I found that Moe went on to be decorated for gallantry in subsequent actions in the Congo. He was to serve another 15 years in the Legion becoming a Regimental Adjutant retiring with a full pension.
Why, you may ask, do I tell this story now? Well three months ago I met Moe once again in a shopping mall in Liverpool. He was with his French wife Sophie, and their three grandchildren whom they were on a visit to England to see. He now lives outside Calvi, Corsica, where he retired to, and set up a very successful gardening centre which he still runs with one of his sons. His other son, whom he was visiting, is a resident paediatric specialist in a local children’s hospital.
Just two miles up the road from his Corsican home are the new barracks of the 2nd Regiment Legion Estrange in which he once served but Moe never gives it a second thought these days. He is more happy being with his wife and family in their lovely home amongst its orange groves than attending old veteran’s Legion reunions. He had just been elected Mayor of his tiny village for the second time running and devotes his spare time to doing well for the community in which he lives. I guess the moral of this story is simply that redemption is possible in this life after all. Once service in the Legion is completed the individual is automatically entitled to full French citizenship. But Moe, always the rebel, never took them up on that offer and he still retains his Scouse accent and remains English to the core. In my humble opinion La Belle France is very lucky to have him even though he still, tongue in cheek, refers to his fellow Gallic citizens as ‘the ‘f****** Frogs’.