Marcel Bigeard dies at 94; French war hero

Gen. Marcel Bigeard, a decorated veteran who led France's elite parachute forces in colonial wars in independence-seeking Indochina and Algeria after serving in the French Resistance in World War II, died Friday in his hometown of Toul in eastern France. He was 94.

Born Feb. 14, 1916, Bigeard was taken into German captivity during World War II as a warrant officer in the 23rd Fortress Infantry Regiment in June 1940. He escaped Nov. 11, 1942, made his way to Senegal, in what was then French West Africa, and was commissioned into Gen. Charles de Gaulle's Free French Forces.

Rapidly promoted to major, Bigeard made his first combat jump in 1944, when he was dropped into occupied France to organize local resistance fighters. He ended World War II with many decorations and with the radio call sign that he retained for the rest of his life: "Bruno."

Bigeard rose to fame during France's ultimately doomed effort to reassert control over its colony in Vietnam after it proclaimed independence in 1945. He served three combat tours there, and his crack 6th Colonial Parachute Battalion became France's spearhead in the war against President Ho Chi Minh's nationalist guerrillas.

Bigeard was captured along with about 12,000 other defenders when insurgents overran the French fortress of Dien Bien Phu in May 1954 — knocking France out of the war and paving the way for the 20-year American involvement in Vietnam.

"Bigeard was personally fearless, tactically brilliant and an intuitive master of terrain, who could conduct a battle by map and radio like the conductor of an orchestra. He inspired the absolute loyalty of his officers and men," said Martin Windrow, a British military historian and expert on France's colonial wars.

Within a year of his release, Bigeard — by then in command of a parachute regiment — was back in action, battling Algerian freedom fighters in the capital, Algiers.

His ruthless methods helped stabilize the military situation there. But they also linked him to widespread torture of captured insurgents, an accusation Bigeard denied, although he did acknowledge "muscular interrogations."

"Mistakes were made on both sides," Bigeard said in 2000. "The Algerians also killed French people."

Bigeard was widely credited with winning the battle of Algiers, the brutal 1957 campaign that saw the French army reclaim control of the center of the Algerian capital. The 1966 movie about the campaign, "The Battle of Algiers," is considered a counterinsurgency classic.

Wounded five times, he emerged from the Algerian war — which France finally lost in 1961 — as one of the country's most decorated military officers.

He ended his career as a four-star general and went on to serve as secretary of state for defense in the 1970s and as a legislator in France's lower house of parliament.