Despite the integration of the Legion amongst normal infantry units, a special forces unit commonly referred to as ‘BOEL’ acts as the Spanish Legion’s Elite forces. The Spanish Legion, originally the ‘Foreign Legion’, was established as a Rapid Reaction Force (RRF) in 1920 against Morocco. Now under the command of the Spanish Army, the Legion maintains a capability to act as the spearhead of the RRF in deployments.
Identity and the Spanish Legion
Ideology and an expertise in North Africa characterise the Spanish Legion. Recruiting from former and historic Spanish colonies in Africa and America drove a significant portion of personnel. Likewise, all foreigners enjoyed an elligible recruitment status prior to the Spanish Civil War. Bound by the ‘Legionnaires creed’, as well as a strong identity component, the Legion developed an aura of combat readiness and willingness, often being associated as a highly-capable force within the Spanish army.
The Bandera de Operaciones Especiales de la Legion (BOEL – Battalion of Special Operations of the Legion) is the elite Spanish Legion’s Elite within an already ‘elite’ unit. Other special forces developed in the Spanish Army. Despite this, the BOEL remains identified as a unique unit with Legionnaire identity within the army’s Special Operations Group (GOE).
The colonial Spanish territories in North Africa are a driver in the history of the BOEL. prior to its existence. In 1924 in the Ifni War, Moroccan rebels infiltrated Spanish territories at night and carried out attacks. Legionnaires from Italy and Russia, nicknamed ‘Hijos de la Noche’ (Sons of the Night), carried raids within the enemy territory without detection as retaliation. The Spanish Legion’s Elite, although not existent until 1981, was likely inspired by the actions from the beginning of the century.
Modern colonial conflicts served as the initial stage for specialised units within the Spanish Legion. The Saharan Tercios (Legionnaire units) posted in Western Sahara served as the Legion’s and Spain’s deterrence against Moroccan expansion. Special Operation Sections of the Spanish Armed Forces trained Saharan tercios, in particular specialising in guerrilla and counter-guerrilla training. The training provided the Spanish Legion’s Elite COIN capabilities against potential insurgencies, for example including the Polisario Front.
Action in North Africa formally created the Unidad de Operaciones Especiales de la Legion (UOEL – Unit of Special Operations of the Legion) in 1981. Between 1981-1985, training focusing on COIN tactics evolved to common traits of a standard special operations unit. The investment included airborne, amphibious, mountain and survival capabilities. Courses in Ronda began targeting non-commissioned officers and corporals in the UOEL. Size expansion and increased training created the BOEL and provided an elite within an already distinct branch like the Spanish Legion.
Training of the Spanish Legion’s Elite
Corporals in the BOEL were, in general, amongst the majority of the qualified special forces in Spain in 1986. Additionally, the 10-year difference between the Saharan tercios and the formalisation of the BOEL gave the Spanish Legion’s Elite a prestige amongst special forces of the Spanish Armed Forces.
BOEL training consisted of a 9-month special operations course divided amongst different skills, as well as the standard 2 month Legion training course. The 9-month course included airborne, waterborne, and land operational environments, as well as survival, first aid, and specialisation in explosives. The selection of recruits included a minimum training period of 120 days, at the same time focusing on individual specialisations of members of the BOEL became the target.
Cooperation with foreign special forces
Cooperation and training with foreign special forces elevated the capability of the BOEL as well as its prestige. The BOEL was integrated within the RRF of the armed forces in 1996.
Training with the SAS in 1996 and Navy Seals in 1997 increased the international prestige and reputation of the BOEL. The special forces exercise in Edinburgh including the Norwegian special forces and the SAS, enjoyed the presence of the BOEL. In another example, exercises held in 1997 in Spain saw the BOEL directly train with SEALS and Portuguese CTOE units. Despite the elevated capacity and growing influence, administrative changes pushed the BOEL and its growing identity to integrate within the army special operations group.
Integration and deployments
Integrating the BOEL within the GOE came under the name “GOE XIX ‘C.L. Maderal Oleaga’” in 2002. While the name removed any mention of the Legion, the notorious legionnaire Maderal Oleaga took protagonism. Later in 2017, reinstating the BOEL in the name did not change its organic structure, remaining under the control of the army’s GOE. The loss of identity is parallel to the maintenance of the capability of an elite Legionnaire unit.
The BOEL, likewise, deployed to multiple international scenarios in Europe and the Middle East. The Spanish Legion’s Elite participated in UNPROFOR and KFOR in Kosovo and Serbia, UNIFIL in Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. While the BOEL lost part of the identity which it carried until 2002, the capabilities of an elite within an elite likely remain intact.