Jean Tranape: French war hero who helped fight off the Desert Fox


Jean Tranape was one of the last surviving members of the French Pacific Battalion. They were volunteers from France's Asian colonies who fought and died in Europe and North Africa for lands, notably France and Great Britain, few, if any of them, had ever seen before.

Twice wounded, he was also one of the last remaining Compagnons de la Libération, the highest award given to French soldiers or resistance fighters during the Second World War. Of the 1,038 Compagnons decorated by the Free French leader General Charles de Gaulle – including a belated honorary award to Winston Churchill – only 25 remain.

A famous 1944 photograph of General de Gaulle pinning the Cross of the Liberation on Tranape, of Vietnamese origin but born in New Caledonia, became a symbol of the role of France's colonies in the victory against the Nazis who had occupied their country in 1940. He was later named Commander of the Legion of Honour, another of France's highest awards for excellent civil or military conduct.

As part of the Pacific Battalion, Tranape was part of the heroic French resistance to Nazi Field-Marshal Edwin Rommel, the Desert Fox, and his Italian allies at Bir Hakeim in the Libyan desert in May and June 1942. Under General Marie-Pierre Koenig, some 3,700 French troops held back 32,000 Axis forces for two weeks in a defensive action which saved the lives of countless British and other allied forces and helped clear the way to eventual victory at El Alamein and in Tunisia.

Tranape's Pacific Battalion commander, Lt-Col Félix Broche, and his deputy were killed on 9 June 1942, just before most of the battalion successfully retreated. Winston Churchill observed: "Holding back Rommel's offensive for 15 days, the Free French of Bir Hakeim contributed to save the destinies of Egypt and the Suez Canal." The French defensive action even elicited admiration from Adolf Hitler in an interview after Bir Hakeim: "The French are, after us, the best soldiers!" Perhaps most importantly, the French stand at Bir Hakeim restored much of the national and military pride lost after the humiliation of the Nazi invasion and the capitulation of many.

Tranape's unit, by then called the Marine Infantry Battalion of the Pacific (BIMP, by its French initials), fought at El Alamein and later in Operation Vulcan, the Allies' final ground attack against the last Axis toeholds at Cap Bon, Tunisia. After the North African victory he landed in Italy as part of the French Expeditionary Corps (FEC) and took part in the bloody battles around Monte Cassino and Operation Diadem, the drive towards Rome.

Fighting under Major-Gen Diego Brosset of the 1st Free French Division, and the overall command of Gen Alphonse Juin, Tranape was heavily involved in the eventually successful breech of Hitler's key Gustav line, a major breakthrough which allowed British and American forces to push towards the Italian capital. He was wounded by a grenade on Mount Girofano on 12 May 1944 but was back on his feet to receive the Cross of the Liberation from de Gaulle in the Italian town of Marcianise on 30 June 1944, when the famous photo was taken.

Six weeks later, on 15 August 1944, Tranape set foot for the first time on the soil he had volunteered to defend four years earlier when he was 10,000 miles away. It was the soil of France, specifically in Provence, during the allied Operation Dragoon. In the battle to liberate the city of Toulon, he was again wounded, this time by a German bullet, on 21 August.

The son of Vietnamese immigrants, Jean Tranape was born in 1918 in Nouméa, in the French territory of New Caledonia, 750 miles east of Australia. His parents had fled the unrest in another colony, what was then called French Indochina. He was a 21-year-old trainee draughtsman in the New Caledonian Public Works department when France was invaded by the Nazis in June 1940 and, after much turmoil, the French Pacific colonies came out in favour of de Gaulle's Free French forces over the collaborationist Vichy régime of Marshal Philippe Pétain. Tranape immediately enlisted in the French Pacific Battalion led by the then Captain Félix Broche, made up of 600 volunteers from Tahiti, New Caledonia and the New Hebrides.

Tranape was demobilised in 1946 as an army Master-Sergeant, settling outside Paris and little knowing he would one day be considered a national hero. He went back to his work as a draughtsman. "Jean Tranape was a man who contributed to returning France its dignity, even before it recovered its liberty," France's Minister for Veterans' Affairs, Kader Arif, said. "Today, all of France mourns this Companion of the Liberation."

Jean Tranape is survived by his wife of 67 years, Odette, and their sons Yvon and Jean-Claude.

Phil Davison

Jean Tranape, war hero and draughtsman: born Nouméa, New Caledonia 3 December 1918; married 1945 Odette Piguet (two children): died Rueil-Malmaison, France 21 August 2012.