The soldier in the photograph was blond as a wheat field. He had a bandage wrapped around his face and an AK-47 in his hand.
“Dominique Borella, photographié sur la rive-est du Mékong au moment de l’offensive ‘rouge’ du 3 février 1975. Bléssé depuis plusieurs jours par éclats de grenades à la jambe gauche, il vient alors d’être touché au visage …”
Dominique Borella, photographed on the east bank of the Mekong during the 3 February 1975 ‘Red’ offensive. Injured in the left leg by grenade shrapnel a few days earlier, he has just been hit in the face … .
Serving France to the Last Drop of Blood
There aren’t many photographs of Borella. There is another in a magazine article about French fascists fighting in the Lebanese civil war. The back of that white-blond head shaking hands with Pierre Gemayel, founder of Hizb Al-Kata’eb Al-Lubnaniyah (the Lebanese Phalange Party) and biggest warlord in the country.
Trying to recreate Borella’s life is like building a dinosaur skeleton from a thigh bone and a few teeth. There isn’t much to go on.
He was born sometime around 1932 and joined the army at eighteen. His first posting was the French colony of Indochina. Ho Chi Minh’s communist guerillas had spent the Second World War fighting the Japanese occupiers. In the post-war years they fought French soldiers like Borella trying to rebuild an empire.
For right-wingers back home Indochina was about national self-respect. France had been humiliated by Nazi occupation during the war. Everyone remembered the black & white newsreels of Hitler’s troops goose-stepping along the boulevards. The men in Paris wanted to slap the smirk off a world that still saw Voltaire’s homeland as a nest of cowards and collaborators.
Borella chased Ho Chi Minh’s guerilla army through the sweating jungle and earned the Médaille Militaire. He was the youngest ever recipient.
In 1954 Borella’s commanders got overconfident. They tried to take the fight into Ho Chi Minh’s northern heartland by building a fortress at Dien Bien Phu. The Vietnamese beseiged the site. Two months later over 2,000 Frenchmen and 4,000 Vietnamese were dead and the fortress had fallen.
Borella was there as a sous-officier (NCO). He could have been one of the wounded evacuated before the French were cut off. Perhaps he fought to the end in the mess of tunnels and bunkers and chewed up earth. And became one of thousands who spent months in Vietnamese prison camps and only got free after France gave Indochina its independence in the summer of 1954.
However it ended Borella remained with the French army until the last soldiers left the country in 1956. Then he transferred to Algeria.
It would be the place Borella and thousands of loyal soldiers like him turned on their own government.
Algeria was a hot sandbox on the North African coast. French settlers had lived there side by side with native Arabs in harmonious hatred since the nineteenth century.
By 1954 Algerians of the Front de Libération Nationale (National Liberation Front – FLN) had begun their fight for independence. The first battles took place in the monotonous sunlight of the steppes. Within two years the FLN were in Algiers’ narrow streets. Men calling themselves urban guerillas planted plastic explosive in cafés and knifed any policemen brave enough to chase them into the Casbah.
Paris unleashed the army. Among the men in green was Dominque Borella. He arrived as a captain in the 2e Régiment étranger de parachutistes. The 2e was an elite unit of the Foreign Legion whose tough reputation attracted French career soldiers who liked to fight.
Borella and his men combed Arabs out of the Casbah and extracted information by any means necessary.
Paris seemed to be winning until Charles De Gaulle clawed his way back to power in 1958. He started off promising to keep Algeria French. Two years later he changed his mind and began decolonalisation. Right-wing French soldiers rebelled, tried a coup, then deserted to join local whites in the OAS (Organisation de l’armée secrète – Secret Army Organisation). Plastic explosive and guerilla warfare.
Borella was in the OAS and ended up in jail for it.
De Gaulle’s government withdrew from Algeria in 1962 and opened the prison gates on the way out. Lots of bitter, radicalised right-wingers flooded across the Mediterranean into the south of France. Borella was one of them.
“Marseilles,” said the publisher and sociologist Jean Viard, “is a great machine to manage immigrants.”
He’s right now and he was right then. In the 1960s the port city’s population increased by 200,000. Most were whites from Algeria fleeing independence and its consequences. Others were Algerians who could not find work in their new country. Borella surfaced there during the hot summer of 1973 with a good job at shipping company Serres et Pilaire and a clean record after a recent amnesty for OAS men.
On the morning of 25 August an unbalanced Algerian immigrant called Salah Bougrine cut the throat of a French trolleybus driver and stabbed five passengers. The murder led to more violence and racial confrontation.
The night of the attack local Frenchmen formed Le Comité de défense des Marseillais (Committee for the Defence of the Marseilles People). The Committee put up signs: “Stop the Arab Agressors”. An anti-immigration march was organised but banned by the police.
Borella was involved in the formation of the Committee. He kept a low profile. British journalist Bruce Chatwin turned up in Marseilles to investigate the affair for the Sunday Times. Already pro-Algerian, he was not impressed by an interview with three Committee leaders.
They had a small office off the Canebière, bare but for posters with a red fist and the title, “Halte à l’Immigration sauvage!” All three had fleshy noses and disagreeable mouths. They looked quite impressive sitting down, but when they stood up they had very short legs. They did at least speak their minds. But I thought of the bright new offices in Algiers, and the smart young executives, and and the eyes of the Third World narrowing on Europe if the racists continue. Wasn’t it time, I asked, to bury the hatchet?
“Monsieur, you are suggesting we take our pants down?”
“Not that,” I said.
Chatwin would have been even less impressed if he knew more Committee members could be found drinking at Le Tonneau bar under a portait of Colonel Georgios Papadopoulos, leader of the Greek military dictatorship admired by anti-communists across Europe. Or that the Committee occupied the former offices of far-right group Ordre Nouveau. The Ordre had been banned by the French government at the end of June after violent clashes in Paris at an anti-immigration march. Its “Halte à l’Immigration sauvage!” (Stop Uncontrolled Immigration!) posters were still on the Committee walls.
No mention of Borella. Chatwin was bisexual and liked the exotic. He would have noticed a good-looking blond soldier.
The only clue to Borella’s activities between Algeria and Marseilles comes from a late 1975 piece by journalist Yves Gaveriaux in the far-right Le Méridional newspaper.
Après l’Algérie (médaille militaire à 20 ans), le Congo, le Yémen, le Vietnam, le Cambodge […]
The Congo was a former Belgian colony granted independence in June 1960. Its first years of freedom were rocked by the attempted secession of Katanga province. The secession failed but the country was barely back on its feet when a guerilla army called the Simbas rebelled in 1964.
The rebels were a mix of Moscow-educated commissars and bush tribesmen who believed holy water made them bullet proof. The government hired white mercenaries to stop them. Men like Irish-born Mike Hoare, Frenchman Bob Denard, and Belgian Jean Schramme. If Borella was in the Congo he was probably serving in Denard’s 6 Commando.
Perhaps he did his time and left. Perhaps he was one of the mercenaries who stayed on and tried to overthow the Congolese government in 1967 when General Mobutu took over. They ended up beseiged in the resort town of Bukavu until evacuated into Rwanda.
Yemen was a battle to put the deposed Imam of Yemen back on the throne that lasted most of the 1960s. British intelligence hired mercenaries from London and Paris to train the Imam’s troops. Many French veterans of the Congo conflict served there.
Vietnam is the American involvement in former French Indochina that began in the early 1960s and ran until the North Vietnamese victory of 1975. Foreign intervention is often seen as a US-only affair but Australia, South Korea, Thailand, and other countries also took part. France did not. Borella could have enlisted privately or in some unofficial capacity. Special Forces involvement has been suggested. Whatever he did earned him medals (“la médaille du Congrès et la Golden Star”) and little publicity.
He would also tell a Swedish journalist he served in Biafra, the short-lived secessionist state in Nigeria that was big news in the late 1960s.
In peacetime Borella lived in Marseilles. He called himself Alex and was involved with a number of far-right organisations. He kept contact with Jean-Jacques Susini, the political brain of the OAS, and belonged to something called the Z-Club. Left-wing newspaper Libération called the club “neo-nazi”, which could be anything from straight truth to elastic interpretation. The Z-Club was certainly involved in smuggling Uzi submachineguns into Belgium, a centre for gunrunning and mercenaries since the Congo wars. A friend from Marseilles also claims that Borella went to Burma where he saw some action fighting with the Karen minority against the government.
Borella left no detailed record of his politics, other than vague slogans about fighting for the Christian west, but similar men zig-zagged between fascism and conservative patriotism with no sense of contradiction.
By 1974 the racial problems in Marseilles had reduced from a boil to a simmer. Borella left politics and headed to another war.
Along the Mekong
A young French photojournalist in Cambodia raised his camera to take a picture of the blond captain leading a paratroop unit. The captain pointed his AK-47. No photographs.
“D’instinct je l’ai rassuré en lui disant que j’étais fils de légionnaire mort en Indo. Il s’est tout de suite calmé en m’indiquant que lui aussi était passé par la Légion. Il s’appelait Dominique Borella dit ‘Alex’.”
Instinctively I told him that I was the son of a Foreign Legionnaire killed in Indochina. He immediately calmed down and said that he had also been in the Legion. He was Dominque Borella, known as “Alex”.
The government of Prime Minister General Lon Nol and Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak had been trying to hold back Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge insurgents since the start of the decade. America helped one side, the North Vietnamese the other. By 1974 the primitivist communists of the Khmer Rouge controlled most of the countryside. The government held onto the main cities and a few transport routes.
Borella’s men were in the jungle along the Mekong trying to hold back the tide. He worked for 3,000 reils a month (about 75 francs) and rarely bothered to collect it but made sure his men were paid on time, unusual in the Cambodian army. He shrugged off shrapnel wounds. His men thought him invincible.
The Frenchman also found time to talk with a journalist for the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter. He did not fight for money any more, he told him, but because he hated Communism. Borella claimed that Russians and Chinese soldiers were fighting with the Khmer Rouge but most troops came from somewhere closer to home.
“Sixty percent of guerrilla soldiers in Cambodia are Vietnamese.”
When the interview appeared on 23 March the exiled Prince Norodom Sihanouk, former King of Cambodia and Khmer Rouge supporter, wrote an angry letter refuting Borella. By then the Frenchman had bigger things to worry about.
On 1 January 1975 the Khmer Rouge had launched an attack that punched through Cambodian government lines. By April they were in the capital. Borella’s men of the 1ère Brigade Parachutiste Cambodgienne (1st Cambodian Parachute Brigade) dug in around Phnom Penh airport and fought on. Pol Pot’s men needed the airport badly enough to negotiate a ceasefire. The paratroopers melted away to avoid Khmer Rouge death squads who would kill you for any signs of opposition or education. Borella made it to the French embassy. The ambassador saw him waiting in a food line and thought the blue-eyed mercenary looked like film star Robert Redford.
Borella hid in the embassy for a few months then was driven across the border with other refugees in May. He got back to Marseilles in time to find out that another war between left and right had erupted. Lebanon was on fire.
The Lebanese Connection
The French carved Lebanon out of the Ottoman Empire’s corpse in 1920. They rigged the political system to benefit local Maronite Christians, who claimed descent from a fourth century saint. The Muslim minority got symbolic but empty roles.
Tensions between Christian and Muslim outlived independence in 1943 and led to a brief civil war fifteen years later. In the early 1970s demographics changed when King Hussein of Jordan expelled the exiled PLO (Palestine Liberation Organisation) from his kingdom in the Black September fighting. Guerillas and refugees moved to Lebanon.
Soon the PLO contolled the west of Beirut. Their presence encouraged native Muslims leftwards towards Moscow. Lebanese Christians moved further right.
In the spring of 1975 a dispute over fishing rights escalated into riots, shooting, and massacres. A new civil war began in April.
The main Christian forces were Pierre Gemayel’s Kataeb al-Quwwat al-Nizamiyah (Kataeb Regulatory Forces – KRF). Gemayel was a veteran politician who started his Phalange party in 1936 when he returned from the Olympic Games in Berlin.
“I was the captain of the Lebanese football team and the president of the Lebanese Football federation,” said Gemayel. “We went to the Olympic Games of 1936 in Berlin. And I saw then this discipline and order. And I said to myself: ‘Why can’t we do the same thing in Lebanon?’ So when we came back to Lebanon, we created this youth movement. When I was in Berlin then, Nazism did not have the reputation which it has now. Nazism? In every system in the world, you can find something good. But Nazism was not Nazism at all. The word came afterwards. In their system, I saw discipline. And we in the Middle East, we need discipline more than anything else.”
In its early days the Phalange critiqued French imperialism and pushed for independence. It softened its views on France once Lebanon gained self-rule. This soothed the consciences of French right-wingers who admired Gemayel’s mix of Christianity and authoritarianism. Some smuggled arms to the KRF in its early days. Mercenary and writer Jean Kay helped train Gemayel’s militiamen in the early 1970s.
When the Lebanese Civil War began a handful of Frenchmen joined the KRF. Two dozen students from Paris, many members of the far-right Occident group, used contacts in the Phalange to spend a few months in the ranks. Right-wingers in Marseilles had their own ratline for anyone who wanted to fight for Christianity in the Middle East.
The numbers remained low. Dominique Borella was one of the first to sign up.
“Je sais depuis bien longtemps que toutes les paroles ne peuvent plus servir la paix mondiale,” he told a friend in Marseilles. “Le communisme nous a fait la guerre aux quatre coins du monde. Je la lui fais donc moi aussi!”
I have known for a long time that words will never achieve world peace. Communism has given us war in all four corners of the world. So I’m going to achieve it myself!
Death in Beirut
The photograph of Borella and Gemayel was probably taken in the autumn of 1975. The French captain was training a group of KRF men outside Beirut. He seemed to be smiling. Gemayel looked stern. The caption talked only about a French volunteer at a Mayrouba training camp.
In July Borella found time to visit a local monastery. He discussed the civil war with a French monk called Dom Gérard. Borella told the monk he was in Lebanon to protect Christian villages and defend churches, schools, and priests. Dom Gérard approved. He thought Borella both happy and serious, and compared him to a crusader.
Before he left Marseilles, Borella had given his friends momentos collected over the years from Africa and Indochina. The wounds in Cambodia, the escape at the airport. Something seems to have convinced Borella that Lebanon would be his last battle.
He took command of a unit in Beirut’s Minet-el-Hosn district, a nest of hotels, some half-built, others open for business. The KRF fought the PLO from rooftops and rooms. A French tv crew caught Borella parading his men on the terrace of the Holiday Inn.
Then in September of 1975 he died.
The circumstances are still mysterious. Some friends back in Marseilles heard he had been shot by a sniper in front of the Rivoli Cinema on Martyr’s Square, although another was told Borella died when a mortar shell hit his jeep. People who knew him from Cambodia got hold of a grimmer story in which he was captured by the PLO, tortured, and executed.
The only certain truth is that he stopped breathing.
Borella left a wife and a young son. Apart from that, his private life is a mystery.
The right pushed the image of an idealistic modern knight fighting for the Christian West. Un homme, un ami, est mort là-bas, à Beyrouth ran the Le Méridional headline above his obituary. A Man, A Friend, Died There in Beirut.
The left preferred him as a bloodthirsty mercenary fighting for unacceptable causes.
“Alex Borella, un fasciste marseillais tué à Beyrouth,” wrote Alain Dugrand in Libération on 12 November. A Marseilles fascist killed in Beirut.
Borella did not get to see the fall of communism, the rise of the Front National, the posters of Stepan Bandera pasted up in Kiev. Instead the French mercenary became a footnote to mostly forgotten wars. At least he is remembered, which is a better deal than 99% of the human race get. Remembered accurately or for the right reasons? Few are.
UPDATE: More information has come to light about Borella after members of his family contacted me. See In Search Of Dominique Borella 2.
This post was originally written for my brightreview.co.uk website.
Bruce Chatwin’s Marseilles account can be found in What Am I Doing Here. The photograph of Borella with Gemayel can be found in the article ‘Vacances au Liban’ (Historia Spécial 406: Les Mercenaires, 1980). Author Rémy Dreylon-Mounier had practical knowledge of right-wing politics. He appears as a teenage protagonist in Target De Gaulle (amazon.co.uk or amazon.com) by Christian Plume and Pierre Demaret, the history of OAS assassination attempts on President De Gaulle.
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