published 27/08/2013 at 05:35 BST
who has died aged 91, was a French résistant during the war before being arrested and deported to Buchenwald; having survived the camp he joined the Foreign Legion, fighting for 15 years in Indo-China, Suez and Algeria before taking part in an attempted coup to overthrow Charles de Gaulle.
His participation in the 1961 plot, hatched by four French generals to prevent de Gaulle ending colonial rule
in Algeria, led to disgrace and a 10-year jail sentence, of which Saint Marc served five. Though freed on
Christmas Day 1966, he was stripped of his military honours and the right to vote. Gradually his reputation recovered until finally, in 2011, he was appointed Grand-Croix de la Légion d’honneur –
rehabilitation that marked the final twist in a remarkable life.
Hélie Denoix de Saint Marc was born in Bordeaux on February 11 1922, the last of seven children in a well-to-do family. His mother, Madeleine (née Buhan), was descended from wine merchants; his father, Joseph, was a lawyer of renown who had fought at Verdun.
Hélie was an unremarkable student at the Tivoli Jesuit college, taking an interest only in history, and dreaming from adolescence of a military career. Outside the classroom he spent happy summers at the family’s farm in the Périgord, which he explored by bicycle.
With the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, Hélie ’s elder brothers were called up, but he was still in Bordeaux by the time the Germans occupied France the following year. “It was a moment of hopelessness, hate and rage,” he recalled later.
His beginnings in the Resistance were motivated simply by a desire to get to the family farm in Périgord once term had finished in Bordeaux; his parents had passes to cross to the unoccupied zone, but Hélie had to sneak across into Vichy France.
In spring 1941 the superior of Tivoli college, Father Bernard de Gorostarzu, introduced Saint Marc to Claude Arnould, known as Colonel Arnould, head of the Jade-Amicol Resistance network . Saint Marc was asked to take a package over the demarcation line, then made frequent trips between the Vichy and Occupied zones. Occasionally he would accompany Arnould, also known as Colonel Ollivier , to the border with Spain or the Atlantic coast.
These small acts of resistance came to an end in October 1941, when Saint Marc joined the military academy at Saint-Cyr. The following June he failed his exams miserably and determined to flee to Spain and, from there, join Free French forces. On July 13 1943 he was with 15 others being smuggled out of Perpignan towards the border when the lorry in which they were travelling was brought to a halt by a German patrol and its clandestine passengers were arrested.
Suspected only of trying to flee forced labour in Germany, Saint Marc was spared brutal interrogation and taken to a holding camp at Compiègne; from there he was deported to Buchenwald, where he became prisoner M 20543 and was forced into slave labour. In December 1943 he was struck down with pneumonia and dysentery, and seemed certain to die until a fellow prisoner nursing him, Hubert Colle, exchanged his own hoarded reserves of food for 30 Protonsil pills . Eight days later the fever broke and Saint Marc began to recover.
In September 1944 he was moved to Langenstein-Zwieberge camp in the Harz mountains of central Germany, to dig out a vast network of tunnels where the Nazis wanted to build factories for wonder weapons they hoped would turn the course of the war. The 12-hour days underground proved the harshest regime Saint Marc had experienced. “I adopted an animal existence: eat, sleep, survive, that’s all,” he recalled.
Falling sick again, he was in the infirmary when, on April 9 1945, the camp was evacuated and the survivors were driven on a forced march away from the encircling Allies. Left behind, he was soon in a hospital in Magdeburg. Aged 23, he weighed six stone.
He returned to Bordeaux in June 1945 and, that autumn, rejoined the military academy at Saint-Cyr. Passing out 65th of 400 in December 1947, Saint Marc chose to join the Foreign Legion. Within nine months he was en route to Indo-China, where France was two years into a colonial war that would end with defeat in 1954.
Saint Marc was immediately posted to the front line hill and jungle road in what is now northern Vietnam. Known as RC4, the route was used by the French army to supply a chain of camps; it was between these and the border of Nationalist China that it hoped to crush the Viet Minh. Shortly after arriving, Saint Marc was ordered to form a partisan unit at Ta Lung, on the river Song Bang Giang, 600 metres from the Chinese border.
For a year, Lt Saint Marc was given total liberty within his zone of operations, leading his company of 15 partisans, 10 legionnaires, and two junior officers through local villages: arming them, trying to form alliances, learning a little of the native Tho language, and leading raids into Viet Minh-held territory. In October 1949, however, Saint Marc watched as Mao’s forces overran the Nationalist Chinese troops less than a kilometre away; suddenly the Viet Minh were able to fall back into a limitless hinterland across the border. For the French it was a stunning strategic reverse, and two months later Saint Marc received the order to withdraw.
Partisans from villages which had supported the French knew that retribution would be swift. Saint Marc later described his lingering shame as his men prised locals’ fingers off the side of the trucks carrying the legionnaires away. “Men, women and children clung on, and once forced off, sat crying in the dust of the roadside,” he said. “No one there would ever forget it.”
He returned to Indo-China in July 1951 and, as commander of a company of the 2 BEP (Foreign Legion Parachute Battalion) formed from Vietnamese volunteers, was promoted captain in October. Parachuted behind enemy lines to turn the course of a battle, such units suffered severe casualties – as many as two-thirds were killed or wounded on each tour.
In late 1951 the French commander, General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny (whose own son, Bernard, had been killed in the fighting), attempted to draw the Viet Minh into a confrontation at Hoa Binh, 50 miles north of Hanoi. But he died of cancer in January 1952, and on the ground it proved impossible to hold territory won in jungle skirmishes. Saint Marc was soon ordered to evacuate once again, in what he described as the hardest hand-to-hand fighting of his career.
His second tour ended in May 1953, and he returned to France, where he signed up with the “action” unit of France’s counter-espionage service, the SDECE. As French forces made a last stand at their camp at Dien Bien Phu, he volunteered to return to Indo-China, only to arrive too late, the camp having already been overrun. Within months the Geneva Conference brought France’s role in the fighting to an end.
Saint Marc was shipped straight to Algeria, where the anti-colonial Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) was launching its first attacks against French settlers. Stationed at Tébessa, on the border with Tunisia, he took command of 3 Company of the 1 BEP (soon upgraded to REP, regimental status), leading ambushes and raids on nascent FLN forces in the Nementcha mountains, whose southern slopes end in the sands of the Sahara.
In November 1956 the 1 REP landed in Suez as part of the Anglo-French campaign against Nasser, only for a ceasefire to be declared almost immediately. Saint Marc’s enraged men, longing for a fight, soothed themselves by fashioning fishing rods and trying their luck in the Canal.
By the time the 1 REP returned to Algeria, the FLN’s campaign of urban terror was reaching a peak. Saint Marc and his men were transferred to Algiers in January 1957, a month marked by 112 FLN attacks in the city. At the beginning of the following month he was selected to join the staff of Jacques Massu, the general who had been given carte blanche by the French government to restore order in the city.
Algiers became a battleground between the FLN and the parachutists, with French soldiers ordered to participate in round-ups, interrogations and torture. Saint Marc was Massu’s liaison with the press. As questions mounted about the brutality of his methods, Massu pursued the operation remorselessly, pressing through the Casbah until French forces had regained total control. Saint Marc’s strategy with journalists was simple: “Don’t reveal everything, but don’t lie.”
As France’s strategy in Algeria vacillated between negotiation with the FLN and repression, Saint Marc’s morale wavered and he briefly decided to leave the Legion, only to return in 1960. Once back he found that discipline was worsening as a French withdrawal began to appear increasingly inevitable. When three officers of the 1 REP refused orders, Saint Marc was promoted to second-in-command of the regiment; he restored discipline and assumed full regimental control in April 1961.
Within days he was approached by General Maurice Challe, a veteran of the Second World War and counter-insurgency strategist in Algeria, and asked if he would consider joining a coup against de Gaulle, aimed at preventing a French withdrawal from Algeria.
After less than an hour’s deliberation, Saint Marc agreed to lead the 1 REP in the coup, planned for the following day . Comically, the Saint Marcs had a dinner party invitation that night from Bernard Saint-Hillier, another general, who was not in on the plot. The couple attended so as not to suggest that anything was wrong. Smiling through the course of dinner, as his men prepared to overthrow the French state, was, Saint Marc later said, “one of my most disagreeable memories”.
After returning to barracks, he was telephoned by Fernand Gambiez, commander-in-chief of the French army in Algeria, also uninvolved in the plot. Rumours of a coup had reached Paris. “Everything is normal here, mon général,” lied Saint Marc. “Not a vehicle is moving.” Ten minutes later the 1 REP was advancing on Algiers. Two hours later, at 4am on Saturday April 22, it was in place at every major crossroads in the city, and was in control of government buildings and local television and radio stations.
The second phase of the coup was to parachute into airfields around Paris and seize control of the capital. Challe spent the weekend on the telephone, calling fellow officers and demanding their support. Meanwhile, on Sunday April 23, de Gaulle appeared on television in his old military uniform, appealing to French citizens to rally to his support against “an odious and stupid adventure”.
Soon it became clear that support for the coup was withering. In Algiers, Saint Marc and his men experienced a bizarre hiatus while the balance of power was being decided. He later recalled a young Algerian approaching him and calmly discussing the various scenarios that might play out. “It was very relaxed,” Saint Marc noted, “despite the fact that we were there in Jeeps, with machine guns at our sides.”
By Monday night it was all over. The 1 REP returned to barracks. Three of the four rebel generals made a run for it. Challe and Saint Marc were left to await the consequences of their actions. “You are young Saint Marc,” noted Challe. “We are going to pay a heavy price. I will certainly be shot. Let me surrender alone.”
The following morning the barracks was surrounded and Challe and Saint Marc surrendered. The 1 REP was disbanded, and Saint Marc was flown to La Santé prison in Paris.
His trial began on June 5. He appeared in full uniform, and read a four-page statement: “One day not long ago we were told to prepare to abandon Algeria... and I thought of [Indo-China]. I thought of villagers clinging to our lorries... of the disbelief and outrage of our Vietnamese allies when we left Tonkin. Then I thought of all the solemn promises we made in Africa, of all the people who chose the French cause because of us... of the messages scrawled in so many villages: 'The Army will protect us. The Army will stay’.”
Ignoring the demands of the government, which sent written orders insisting on a 20-year jail term, the prosecutor, Jean Reliquet, pressed only for a term of five to eight years. In fact, a panel of eight judges sentenced Saint Marc to 10 years in jail. (Challe received 15.)
After his pardon came through he joined a manufacturing firm in Lyon, becoming personnel director. After 10 years he found himself welcome again in the barracks of the Legion. In the late 1980s he began to collaborate with the journalist Laurent Beccaria, who wrote his biography. Saint Marc then began to speak at conferences around the world.
He wrote or contributed to several books about war, including Les Soldats Oubliés (1993); Memoires (1995); Les Sentinelles du Soir (1999); and Notre Histoire (2002), written with August von Kageneck, a German officer of a similar age, in which the two men discuss their differing experiences of the Second World War.
Hélie de Saint Marc, who in retirement lived in the Drôme, married, in 1957, Manette de Châteaubodeau, with whom he had four daughters.
Hélie de Saint Marc, born February 11 1922, died August 26 2013