Obituary: Lt-Col Jean Ballarin

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IN 1941, Jean Ballarin led what is always regarded as the last charge of the French cavalry.

He was a professional soldier who joined the French army as soon as he was 18, in 1933. At the outbreak of the Second World War he was a corporal, stationed in Syria, with a regiment of Moroccan spahis. He heard the appeal of General de Gaulle broadcast from London on 18 June 1940 and like many other soldiers serving overseas he had to make a choice. He had lost faith in generals. But there was one general remaining. Like many others, including Moroccans, he left Syria and went via Egypt to the Sudan.

The French troops were put to guarding the Suez Canal from July to October, when the British command brought them into the area where an offensive was being planned against the Italians. Ballarin was with the Moroccan spahis who moved to Kassal on the frontier between the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan and Eritrea.

The terrain was extremely difficult, being largely mountainous, with primitive paths that were unsuitable for pack animals. The French unit had been given uniforms by the 5th Indian Division although they scrupulously kept their red kepis. Otherwise their equipment was lacking, particularly in automatic weapons. Therefore, given the terrain and this circumstance, they were particularly reliant on their horses.

Their orders were to reconnoitre the area of northern Eritrea and to engage with the Italian forces they encountered. On 2 January 1941 they were negotiating the plateau of Umberga when they came unexpectedly on a force of Askari soldiers with Italian officers. Although the Italians were superior in numbers the French charged them, pursued them, and charged them again. The Italians took refuge in dense vegetation.

This was not a large-scale encounter. The French lost one spahi, the Italians had nine dead and abandoned four prisoners. The platoon which charged twice, and was led by Ballarin, numbered some 20 men.

For the rest of his life Ballarin appeared as a heroic figure: after the defeats of 1940 he had played a leading role in a French victory, and one which seemed in the finest of French military traditions. When the Eritrean campaign was over, Ballarin's unit was equipped with armoured vehicles and automatic weapons, suitable for the desert war.

Ballarin fought with Free French forces in Syria, and was afterwards stationed near Cairo. From there, under the command of General Koenig, he took part in the battle of El Alamein. As the Allied troops moved westward, Ballarin (by now a lieutenant) went with General Leclerc's army, in its attack on the German forces in Tunisia. Ballerin's plateau came under very heavy fire in the battle of Medenine, where he fought alongside the 2nd New Zealand Division and was under the command of General Freyberg. Afterwards, in March 1943, he passed to Leclerc's command. The fighting of the French in southern Tunisia earned a typical tribute from Montgomery. "Well done." On 2 June 1943 Ballarin was decorated and made a Companion of the Liberation.

A considerable change then came his way. De Gaulle had gone to Algiers on 30 May 1943. In August Ballarin was summoned to go there and to become head of de Gaulle's personal escort, with the rank of captain.

He did not accompany de Gaulle to France or to Paris in 1944, but returned to join Leclerc's army as it moved eastward towards Strasbourg and Germany. He was present at Hitler's last desperate attempts to keep Alsace in German hands. He stayed with Leclerc's celebrated 2DB as it was called (2eme Division Blindee), and went on to occupy Hitler's mountain home at Berchtesgaden.

After the war Ballarin remained with Koenig, who had admired his courage and now respected his facilities as an administrator. He was Koenig's chief aide in his commands of the French zone in occupied Germany, and of French forces in North Africa. In 1954 he experienced a hectic short period when Koenig became minister for defence in the government of Pierre Mendes France. This appointment, against the express wishes of de Gaulle, had to strengthen the French forces in Indo-China and find a compromise agreement for the creation of the European Defence Community.

With Koenig's resignation Ballarin returned to the army. In his last appointment, promoted to the rank of lieutenant-colonel, he was given command of the 5th Regiment of Moroccan spahis. He retired from the army in 1962 and devoted himself to business interests in the 13th arrondissement of Paris. But he was always remembered as the soldier who led the last charge of the French cavalry.

Jean Ballarin, soldier: born La Villedieu, France 16 January 1915; married (four sons); died Paris 27 January 1999.