1er RPIMa: The French equivalent of the UK’s SAS

1.0 Introduction

The 1st Marine Infantry Parachute Regiment (French: 1er Régiment de Parachutistes d’infanterie de Marine) is a tier-one French special forces unit. 1er RPIMa specialises in long-range reconnaissance, counter-terrorism and hostage rescue. Based in Bayonne, the unit is garrisoned at a picturesque 17th-century star fortress on the French Atlantic coast, close to the Spanish border. 

RPIMa traces its traditions back to two Free French paratrooper regiments that served with the SAS during the Second World War. When the unit was established in 1960, it modelled itself closely on the SAS, even adopting the famous SAS motto: “Who Dares Wins”. Amongst the most elite special forces units in Europe, RPIMa has been deployed near constantly since the end of the Cold War.

2.0 Insignia and Motto

The badge of 1st Marine Infantry Parachute Regiment (1er RPIMa) is heavily inspired by the British SAS badge. A winged downwards facing white dagger takes centreplace with the unit motto “Qui Ose Gagne” adorned on scroll across it. Moreover, there is debate around the original meaning of the SAS flying dagger. In some interpretations it is the “sword of damocles”: a fabled sword that alludes to the imminent peril faced by those in power. [source] In other interpretations, the dagger is King Arthur’s Excalibur of ancient Brithonic myth.

1er PRIMA member visualised by Charlie Cousens on behalf of Grey Dynamics.
1er PRIMA member visualised by Charlie Cousens on behalf of Grey Dynamics.
The logo of RPIMa takes heavy inspiration from the British SAS.
The regimental beret badge of 1er RPIMa [source]

RPIMa’s Motto “Qui Ose Gagne” is a literal translation of the SAS motto “Who Dares Wins”.

3.0 Founding History of 1er RPIMa

The 1st Marine Infantry Parachute Regiment was created in 1960. Confusingly, despite being a “Marine” regiment, RPIMa is a French Army unit. The tradition of marine infantry (French: Troupes de la Marine) dates back to 1762 when France mandated that the French Navy receive a detachment of Army regiments for sea borne assaults and garrison duties.[source] Since 1762, French marine infantry units have gone through many iterations throughout their history as have RPIMa:

  • 1e C.I.A: 1e Compagnie d’Infanterie de l’Air Second World War – (1940)
  • Free French SAS – (1942)
  • 1re Demi-brigade Coloniale de Commandos Parachutistes – Indochina War – (1947)
  • L’AFN : Brigade de Parachutistes Coloniaux(1953)
  • 1er Régiment de Parachutistes D’infanterie de Marine (1er RPIMa) – (1960)

On 1 January 1942, the French 1st Air Infantry Company (1e C.I.A) came under the command of David Stirling, the pioneering creator and leader of the British Special Air Service (SAS). [source] Previously, 1e C.I.A. earned its reputation in 1941 by parachuting into occupied Europ e and conducting daring clandestine operations in plain clothing.

Members of the ‘French Squadron SAS’ (1ere Compagnie de Chasseurs Parachutistes) during the link-up between advanced units of the 1st and 8th armies in the Gabes-Tozeur area. [source]

Under Stirling’s command, the Air Infantry company was expanded and elevated to special forces status. Consequently, the French SAS commandos proved themselves to be highly capable desert fighters throughout the 1942-3 North Africa campaign.  In November 1943, Free France created the 3rd and 4th Air Infantry which were incorporated into the SAS alongside the 1st and 2nd SAS regiments. In 1945, the French SAS regiments were handed back to the new French Army. The experience of the North African desert however left a lasting indelible mark on French special forces tradition which is still present to the modern day. [source]

4.0 Organisation

4.1 Structure

Since 1992, RPIMa has served under the Special Forces Command (French: Commandement des Opérations Spéciales (COS). COS is the French equivalent of the American USSOCOM or British UKSF. The overarching organisation contains special forces units from all three branches of the French military. COS was established following the 1991 Gulf War based on lessons learnt from the organisation of British and American Special Forces. [source] RPIMa belongs to COS’ ground forces element known as Brigade des Forces Spéciales Terre (BFST). The BFST encompasses all of the French Army’s special forces units.

The emblem of the COS of which the Marine Infantry Parachute Regiment belongs to.
The emblem of Commandement des Opérations Spéciales (COS), 1992. [source]

The 1st Marine Infantry Parachute Regiment is made up of six companies. Firstly, each company is referred to as an SAS stick. Secondly, each company specialises in a certain action:

  • 1ère compagnie SAS – Airborne assault, Paratroopers, Underwater Operations, Counter-terrorism, VIP protection
  • 2e compagnie SAS – Jungle, Mountain, Desert, Arctic Warfare Specialists
  • 3e compagnie SAS – Long range motorised reconnaissance patrols and sabotage operations
  • 4e compagnie SAS – Urban Warfare specialists, Hostage Rescue, Urban Reconnaissance
  • Command and logistics company – Organising and maintaining the unit in the field
  • Training company – Responsible for the unit’s recruitment

4.2 Size

The Commandement des Opérations Spéciales (COS) consists of approximately 3,000 personnel. RPRIMa’s base at Bayonne is home to 905 men and women spread across six companies.

5.0 Recruitment

5.1 Requirements

It is recommended that 1er RPIMa applicants have at least three years experience in the French army. However it is possible for civilians to apply following a series of additional training courses. All applicants must be under the age of Twenty-Nine. [source]

The Marine Infantry Parachute Regiment training. Very similar exercises to the British SAS.
Commandos practising dropping from a Helicopter. Likely near Bayonne in the Pyrenees. [source]

French 1er RPIMa Fitness Test and Pass Requirements [source]

  • Cooper Test – Run 3 Kilometres in 12 minutes
  • Luc Léger Test – Bleep Test Level 10
  • Rope Climb – 2 Rope Climbs Without Hands
  • Pull Ups – 10+ Reps Required
  • Piste d’audace – Timed Obstacle Course
  • Ruck March – Timed Long Distance Rucksack Carrying Race

During the selection period candidates will be subjected to extreme temperature conditions and sleep deprivation. All while the RPRIMa hopeful are simultaneously assessed on their team working and endurance (physically and mentally).

RIMPa training and taking on board lessons learnt from the SAS during WW2. French Special Forces were forced to reinvent themselves after the War and the Marine Infantry Parachute Regiment based themselves heavily on the British SAS.
A class of RPIMa recruits undergoing paratrooper training circa 1960s [source]

6.0 Equipment used by 1er RPIMa

6.1 Weapons

  • Assault Rifles – 7.62x51mm Heckler & Koch HK417, 5.56x45mm SIG MCX
  • Sub-Machine Guns – 5.7x28mm FN P90, 9x19mm Heckler & Koch MP5
  • Light Machine Guns – 7.62x51mm FN MAG, 5.56x45mm FN Minimi, 5.56x45mm FN EVOLYS
  • Shotguns – 12 or 20 Gauge Shells or Slugs Benelli M3, 12 Gauge Benelli M4 Super 90
  • Pistols – 9x19mm Heckler & Koch USP9, 9x19mm Glock 17

[source] [source]

6.2 Vehicles

  • VPS 2 Patrol Vehicle – 4×4, carries three commandos, capable of mounting a 7.62mm MG, 12.7mm MG, 7.62mm M134 Minigun or a 40 mm H&K grenade launcher
  • Renault Sherpa Light – 4×4 light armoured personnel carrier, carries up to five commandos, capable of mounting 20mm cannon or a Milan anti-tank guided missile.
  • Land Rover Discovery 3 – 4×4 armoured support vehicle, used for transporting high value assets, weighs 3.6 tonnes and has STANAG level 2 armour.
  • Polaris Sportsman MV850 Quad Bike – Rapid transport vehicle, can carry two commandos and 270 kg of equipment, gun mount.
  • Styx River Crossing Boat – Eight metres long and can carry 12 commandos

[source] [source]

The VPS 2. French Special Forces units favour the high mobility the car offers.
The VPS 2 (right) is an iconic French Special Forces vehicle being easy to deploy, highly mobile and capable in extreme environments. [source]

7.0 Notable 1er RPIMa Operations

7.1 1991 Gulf War

During Operation Desert Storm French forces advanced on the coalition’s left flank. Impressively, France achieved its objectives in under 48 hours, crushing the Iraqi 45th Mechanised Infantry Division and capturing Al-Salman airfield. During the 1991 Iraq War, two RPIMa were killed, Sergent Yves Schmitt  and Caporal-Chef Éric Cordier. The two commandos were killed whilst clearing unexploded US bombs. [source] [source]

1er RPIMa fought alongside the SAS in during the Gulf War. The French Special Forces Unit was the tip of the French spear.
A company of French commandos preparing for a mission in the Iraqi desert 1991. [source]

7.2 1995 Bosnia

RPIMa personnel served in Bosnia and Herzegovina as peacekeepers under the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR). French special forces units were active in the former-Yugoslavia between 1995 and 2001. Following the 1995 Dayton Agreement, RPIMa formed part of the Implementation Force (IFOR) and Stabilisation Force (SFOR). Overall, PRIMa operatives played a significant role in hunting down war criminals. [source]

7.3 2001 Afghanistan

French involvement in Afghanistan began with the deployment of special forces in 2001. 1er RPIMa was deployed alongside fellow special forces units 3e Régiment de Dragons Parachutistes (13e RDP) and Commando Parachutiste de l’Air no 10 (CPA 10). Between 2003 and 2006, the three units known as Task Group Ares operated in the Kandahar region. French Special forces units carried out the following types of operations in Afghanistan:

  • Intelligence collection
  • Long Range Motor Patrols
  • Interception and Raiding Operations against Taliban hideouts

Since 2001, three RPIMa operatives have died in Afghanistan. In 2009, two RPIMa died in a road traffic incident. The Taliban also killed an RPIMa with an IED device. [source] [source]

7.4 2013 Operation Serval

Since 2009, French Special Forces have been present in West Africa training regional partners in counter-terrorism techniques. In 2013, France launched a military operation in Mali to oust Islamic terrorists in the north of the country. Known as Operation Serval, France embarked on a lightning offensive against IS fighters in January 2013. French Special Forces units, including elements of 1er RPIMa formed the vanguard. Marine Infantry Parachutist Regiments utilised their high mobility to conduct long range reconnaissance patrols and airborne assaults. Details on French Special Forces activities in Mali remains scarce. [source]

The 1st Marine Infantry Parachute Regiment on patrol in Mali. The elite French Special Forces unit has developed a fearsome reputation in the desert.
1er RPIMa operatives conducting a long range motorised patrol in Mali, 2014. [source]

8.0 Conclusion

With a history dating back to the Second World War, RPIMa have adopted the lessons of elite British and American special forces to master their tradecraft. 1er RPIMa has rightfully earned its reputation as a prestigious and tier one special forces unit comparable to US Delta Force or the British SAS. Furthermore, French Special Forces are likely to play an increasingly important role in West Africa over the next decade as Islamic terrorism threatens French interests in the region. Direct combat is unlikely however as special forces have thus far primarily provided training support for regional militaries.

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