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Battle of Philippeville
Part of Algerian War
Date20 August 1955
FLN  France

The Battle of Philippeville was part of the Algerian War between France and Algerian rebels, primarily the National Liberation Front (FLN) The battle took place on August 20, 1955 and centered on the Algerian town of Philippeville, though the FLN also made attacks on surrounding areas.

Prelude[edit | edit source]

The Algerian War had begun on November 1, 1954 when the first major attack of the FLN was launched, consisting of "scores of scores of spectacular attacks."[1] The conflict began to escalate, as evidenced by the remarks of then-Minister of the Interior, François Mitterrand: "I will not agree to negotiate with the enemies of the homeland. The only negotiation is war!"[2] The French adopted an increasingly aggressive policy in Algeria, and in early March 1955, the French government of Prime Minister Pierre Mendes-France was replaced by that of Edgar Faure.

To help combat the insurgency, Paul Aussaresses was dispatched to restart the intelligence unit from scratch, which had been disbanded during peacetime.[3] Aussaresses set up the unit and started to collect intelligence and establish a network of informants and field agents.

The battle[edit | edit source]

Aussaresses was surprised by a set of attacks the FLN launched on June 18, 1955, which his intelligence unit had not heard anything about beforehand. After this, a more proactive policy was adopted, which resulted in the discovery of the FLN's plan to launch a massive frontal assault on August 20 at noon, with the primary objective of taking Philippeville. The FLN was not powerful enough to capture a large city, such as the capital at Algiers, but Philippeville was a mid-sized town and an important port city.

In the days before the attack, FLN commandos took up positions in cellars within the town, while several thousand more fellagha prepared to attack the French forces in Philippeville, which numbered about 400.[4] The French quietly prepared for the anticipated attack, not even acting against the commandos who they knew were there, for fear that the FLN would realize the French had discovered their plan.

Action first broke out during the hour before attack, when the deputy police commissioner in charge of public safety, Superintendent Filiberti, took four men outside of town to make an unrelated arrest. The four men were pinned down by about 500 fellagha, but eventually able to fall back around a half hour before the attack began. The main attack began around noon, and the fellagha, under the influence of narcotics,[5] attacked without any regard to their safety. They did not expect the French to see the attack coming, and were surprised when the French had set up positions to defend the city, as well as defend against the commandos which emerged from the cellars. There were 134 fellagha killed in the streets of Philippeville, and several hundred more wounded; the French citizens killed were 71 and the FLN also killed 52 Muslims, many of whom were prominent politicians.[6]

While the main assault was going on, there were also side actions in the countryside around Constantine. One was an attack on El-Halia, a sulphur-mining community where 130 Europeans had lived with about 2,000 Algerian Muslims in peace. The Muslims were encouraged to rise up against the Europeans after the FLN told them there would be no risk, because Egyptian and American troops were landing that day to expel the French from Algeria.[7] Shortly before noon on 20 August four groups of fifteen to twenty FLN commandos each, accompanied by local Muslims went from house to house in the European quarter of the village. Thirty-seven European civilians were killed, including ten children. A further thirteen were left for dead.[8] Babies were chopped into pieces and smashed against walls, while women were raped, disemboweled and decapitated.[9] The men were off working in the mines when the fellagha attacked and some were dragged from their cars and killed as they returned home for their midday meal. Only six families who barricaded themselves in a single house with sporting weapons escaped unscathed. Weapons at the mine were locked up because the person in charge of the key had gone to the beach.

Three hours later, French paratroops from Philippeville arrived in El-Halia supported by military aircraft. Initially ordered to take no prisoners, the paratroops subsequently gathered about 150 Muslims together and the next morning carried out a mass execution of them.[10][11]

The effect of the killings by both sides in Philippville, El-Halia and elsewhere was to destroy any hope of inter-communal reconciliation. The French administration allowed pied-noir settlers to arm themselves and form self-defense units, measures which had been vetoed by the reformist governor-general Jacques Soustelle a few months earlier.Visiting Philippeville Soustelle recorded that now "the Europeans saw terrorists in every Muslim, the Muslims feared reprisals by the Europeans.".[12] European vigilante groups are reported to have subsequently carried out summary killings of Muslims.

Death toll[edit | edit source]

The French authorities stated that seventy-one Europeans and fifty-two Muslims were killed by the FLN-led mob on 20 August while 1,273 Muslims died in what Soustelle admitted were "severe" reprisals. The FLN subsequently claimed that 12,000 Muslims were killed[13]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Aussaresses, Paul [Gen.]. The Battle of the Casbah." Enigma Books, 2006, p.1. ISBN 1-929631-30-8
  2. Aussaresses, p. 2
  3. Aussaresses, p. 11
  4. Aussaresses, p. 35
  5. Aussaresses, p. 44
  6. Adam Shatz, “The Torture of Algiers,” NY Review of Books, volume 49, number 18, 21 November 2002.
  7. Aussaresses, p. 49
  8. Alistair Horne, pages 120-121 "A Savage War of Peace", ISBN 0-670-61964-7
  9. Aussaresses, pp. 47-48
  10. Alistair Horne, pages 121 "A Savage War of Peace", ISBN 0-670-61964-7
  11. Gisèle Halimi, Milk for the Orange Tree, page 114
  12. Alistair Horne, pages 121 "A Savage War of Peace", ISBN 0-670-61964-7
  13. Alistair Horne, pages 122 "A Savage War of Peace", ISBN 0-670-61964-7

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