30 years ago: Daguet
To mark the 30th anniversary of Operation Daguet, the editorial team hand over to film director and special correspondent, Géraud Burin des Roziers, who covered the weeks of preparations of French troops leading up to the offensive of 17 January 1991.
Desert of Saudi Arabia, November 1990, Daguet Division HQ
A grenade has just gone off in the middle of the parade ground. Scud alert! In the dark, the troops slip on their standard protective clothing and NBC suits (editor’s note: these provide protection against toxic chemical agents). The ground-to-air defence section is already pointing its missiles at the sky, ready to counter the Iraqi attack. The AMX-10 RC tanks are packed in around the camp’s protective shelter. False alarm!
Two weeks ago, I heard the news: just a few weeks after joining the ECPA, the armed forces’ film and photography unit, I was being sent to Saudi Arabia, heading a team of reporters to cover the Gulf War.
Arrival at King Khalid Military City
My mission is to reach northern Saudi Arabia. The defensive sector assigned to the French, named “Miramar”, is located 40 km to the north of King Khalid Military City (KKMC). I landed in Yanbu with a handful of angry journalists. Restrictions by the Armed Forces’ Public Relations and Information Service (SIRPA) prohibit them from going to the front, other than on a small number of closely supervised trips.
Twelve hundred kilometres away, near Hafar al-Batin, military reporters blend into the crowd, but have to use their powers of persuasion and diplomacy to work. So as not to languish in Riyadh, where the joint forces command and the press centre are located, or at the As-Salman airbase, I make endless overtures to the head of logistics.
Three days later, I obtain my prize: a Peugeot P4, requisitioned from the military post. From now on, we will be able to get around, shadowing the different units and doing plenty of reporting. First off, with the 5th Combat Helicopter Regiment. Then with the tanks and bomb disposal experts of the Foreign Legion, the health service, the nuclear, biological and chemical teams in charge of decontamination, the artillery, the logisticians, etc. Objective: to report on Operation Desert Shield.
“Reporting on the day-to-day lives of the troops”
For the men of images that we are, this war offers a captivating spectacle: on the one hand, the desert with its lights and harshness; on the other, the men with their charisma, their self-sacrifice, their courage, and also their questions. Through the prism of the lens, the faces are craggy and dusty. The tanks, machines and weapons are eaten away by the sand. Just like at the theatre, the intrigue is there, with the doubt and uncertainty about the day of the impending battle. Meanwhile, the command must ensure the troops are kept permanently battle-ready. Like our comrades, we too must train and prepare. When the time comes, we must be able to easily fit in with the units. We are here to take away powerful images, but also to recount this war by reporting on the day-to-day lives of the troops.
Some scenes are staged and directed for effect. These symbolic images are intended to show the airmobile response capability of our armed forces: being able to strike hard, fast and far. Thanks to the complicity of an officer, we find ourselves in the midst of a helicopter raid. Ten Pumas fly in line, just a few metres above the ground. For a moment, the machines come close together in line with our cameras. After landing, we leave them behind until the following day; the time required to make a discreet foray on foot as far as the Iraqi border, 10 km away. The company digs in for the night for observation.
In this war, our role is also to record the words of the troops. Sometimes, they open up to us. They speak of their wives and children back home, of the country they’re prepared to die for. They wouldn’t exchange this outdoor life for anything. They’ve chosen it and love it. They also speak of the boredom and their impatience to go into combat. They share their misgivings about the pyridostigmine pills they have to take every day as prevention against chemical weapons, which, in the event of contamination, are supposed to increase their chances of survival. They grumble about the monotony of their combat rations, they’re moved by the drawings and letters they receive from school kids so far away. Contradictorily, they complain about the lack of interest shown in them in France. Yet when approached by journalists, they run them down and make fun of them good-humouredly.
On Christmas Eve, the troops kill time and entertain themselves with their prowess. They’re bursting with creativity. For the traditional crib competition, one Legionnaire of the 2nd Foreign Infantry Regiment (REI) has sculpted a Nativity scene in the sand. Another has made an incredibly realistic camel head. In the 1st Spahi Regiment, the troops pamper their mascot: Yusuf, a young ram they have taken in and looked after since rescuing it from the barbed wire. There are also these fleeting moments of grace captured by the camera, like the Gazelle pilot against a blazing sky who, despite the deafening noise of the helicopters, perseveres in playing sax for the boys in his unit.
And we mustn’t forget the field bakery run by a Legionnaire at KKMC. Like any self-respecting baker, he slept little. You should have seen what a success his little business was. Every night, the rustic baguettes were kneaded by hand and put in the oven. In the morning, the crusty loaves were loaded, still steaming, into Renault TRM trucks, carefully covered with tarpaulins, then driven out to the French units in the desert. It was a poor road, scattered with fech-fech (editor’s note: soft sand); the chaotic journey was rewarded by the unconcealed joy of the troops upon arrival. The work of this Legionnaire is a detail in the preparations and build-up to this war, but it sustained the morale of the troops and constituted a minor logistical triumph. In addition, this French know-how was the envy of the Americans. How classy to have French bread and croissants for breakfast!
Late December sees the beginnings of Operation Desert Storm. At KKMC, I pass kilometres of endless US convoys. Every day, hundreds of vehicles and helicopters arrive and pile up. There is no doubt about it: the great land offensive is fast approaching.
Articles of the review
Overseas operations: how to remember them?
Overseas operations refer to interventions by French military forces outside national territory. Although they officially came into existence some 60 years ago, the question of the aspects, challenges and transmission of this living memory remains relatively discreet and recent.Read more
Overseas operations veterans’ associations
Like those who fought in earlier conflicts, the veterans of overseas operations have campaigned for rights commensurate with their commitment. Increasingly numerous in traditional veterans’ associations, they have also organised in specific organisations.Read more
On 17 January 1991, in the midst of the Gulf War, 12 French Jaguar aircraft attacked the strategic Iraqi air base of Al-Jaber (Kuwait). Operation Desert Storm got underway. Captain Jean-François Hummel of the 11th Fighter Squadron was one of the pilots.Read more