Commandos Marine: The French SBS

1.0 The Commandos Marine

The Commandos Marine are a French special operations force (SOF). They operate under La Force Maritime des Fusiliers Marins et Commandos (FORFUSCO) interjoined with the French Navy (Marine Nationale) and are under the command of the French Special Operations Command (SOC).

The purpose of the Commandos Marine is to conduct special operations both at sea, on land, and through air deployment. For instance, their missions include hostage rescue, counter-terrorism, underwater diving, intelligence collection, and direct action. 

The Commandos Marine are a tier 2 SOF, being largely comparable with the Royal Marines and US Navy Seals. However, Commandos Hubert is the elite unit of the SOF, known to work alongside France’s DGSE’s Action Division and GIGN. Therefore, Hubert is regarded more of a tier 1 unit, comparable to the SBS and USA’s DEVGRU regarding functionality. 

2.0 Mottos, Symbols, and Patches

2.1 Motto

The Commandos Marine motto is ‘Unis nous conquerons’ meaning ‘United we conquer’

2.2 Insignia

The Commandos insignia comprises a golden-brown shield with a galleon and a dagger overlaid on top, symbolising the unit as silent killers at sea and in association with the navy. Additionally, it features the Cross of Lorraine on the top left, attached to units established during the Second World War and with Free France. Finally, The bottom of the insignia is a ribbon displaying the words ‘Commandos Marine’ written.

2.3 Patches

Additionally, the several units of the Commandos Marine each have their own insignias which share similarities of the groups insignia such as the dagger, as seen in section 4.0

3.0 History

The Commandos Marine became established in 1942 from Free French volunteers across the French navy and army. They were originally trained in Achnacarry in Scotland and modelled after the British Commandos who oversaw their training. In acknowledgment of this, Commandos Marines are nicknamed Green Berets (Berets Vert) and are the only group within the French military who wear their berets to the right of their head in recognition of their anglo partners and historical lineage. In 2022 the Commandos returned to Scotland to pay homage to their comrades and history, marking 80 years since their inception (Source)

4.0 Organisation

“La force maritime des fusiliers marins et commandos est plus que jamais au cœur de notre stratégie globale de défense. Elle est en première ligne dans la lutte contre le terrorisme.” 

– Ministry of Defense Jean-Yves Le Drian, 11 September 2015

“The naval forces of the marines and commandos are more than ever at the heart of our global defence strategy. She is the first line of defence in the fight against terrorism.” (Source)

Composing of several units, each carries a unique specialisation to fit certain situational requirements whilst on a mission. In addition, Commandos units are named after officers killed in action during World War Two and the First Indochina War. It is estimated that over 700 personnel make up these units of 90 men each, with the exception of Ponchardier which is 160 (Source). Thus, below is a list of all active units within the Commandos Marines and their core purpose, along with some unique information about each unit.

4.1 Commando Jaubert

Motto: ‘Unis nous conquerons’

Headquarters: Lorient, France. 

Regarded as a tier 2 unit, Jaubert conducts CTLO and Direct Action in maritime environments. Jaubert is named after Captain Francois Jaubert, a marine officer killed in French Indochina in 1946. Originally, Jaubert descends from the Merlet Company, created in 1944 from Free French Sailors as a reconnaissance force in Asia. Since then, Jaubert has been involved in numerous theatres such as Indochina, Algeria’s war of independence, and deployment in the Red Sea against piracy. During the Albanian Civil War in 1997, the multinational peacekeeping force called Operation Alba, saw the deployment of the Commandos. Those involved were Jaubert and Hubert whose mission was to conduct beach reconnaissance during evacuations of western nationals. 

Responsibilities

  • Counter Terrorism and Hostage Rescue (Abbreviated in French to CTLO)
  • Direct Action ashore
  • Maritime Interdiction Operations

4.2 Commando de Montfort

Motto: ‘Potius Mori Quam Feuodari’ translates to ‘Rather Death Than Defilement’

Headquarters: Lorient, France. 

Specialising in reconnaissance, Montfort is an elite unit in support based activities and tactical intelligence. Following their creation in 1946, Montfort deployed to Indochina in 1947 to assist in COIN against Vietnamese insurgents. The unit was officially given its name after Louis de Montfort who served in the Merlet company and was killed in combat. In 1954 they were disbanded and integrated with Jaubert after serving their purpose as a ‘support group’. However, it wasn’t until 1972 and a prior reinstatement then disbandment that Montfort is the force it is today. In 1997, Sierra Leone faced a civil war between the RUF and Liberia against Joseph Momoh’s government. Commandos de Montfort sent a contingent of 20 men to assist in the evacuation of over 21 different nationalities known as Operation Espadon. 

Responsibilities

  • Special Neutralisation and Observation Teams, abbreviated in French to ESNO.
  • Montfort conducts remote support which includes mortars and anti-tank weaponry.  
  • Long Range Neutralisation

4.3 Commando de Penfentenyo

Motto: ‘Unis nous conquerons’

Headquarters: Lorient, France.

Formed in 1947, Penfentenyo specialises in tactical intelligence and reconnaissance. Nicknamed ‘Penfen’, the Republic of Djibouti have seen the commandos regularly deployed there alongside other French units. Additionally, Djibouti is home to the Commandos Marines ‘Path of the Unconscious’, a training exercise through the desert. In 1956, Penfen was deployed during the Suez Crisis, capturing and holding Port Said, Egypt, during British and French occupation of the canal. Additionally, Commandos of Penfen were regularly deployed during the Algerian War in the 1960’s. (Source)

Responsibilities

  • Special Neutralisation Teams (ESNO)
  • Reconnaissance
  • Tactical Intelligence
  • Long Range Neutralisation

4.4 Commando Trépel

Motto: ‘Unis nous conquerons’

Headquarters: Lorient, France.

Experts in maritime engagements and CTLO at sea, Commando Trépel is one of the leading within this field. Named after Captain Charles Trépel, who went missing following Operation Hardtack in Holland 1944 during a maritime engagement during the allied landings. Trépel’s missions largely correlate with the other units such as conducting anti-piracy and COIN during Operation Serval. However, Trépel has been involved as a showcase piece for the military. In 2018, Trépel was involved in France’s innovation defence 2018 and SOFIN in 2019 to demonstrate France’s special forces equipment. (Source) (Source) (Source) (Source)

Responsibilities

  • Counter Terrorism and Hostage Rescue (CTLO)
  • Direct Action
  • Close Quarter Combat 
  • Extractions

4.5 Commando Hubert

Motto: ‘Sortis du ventre de la nuit, ils sont porteurs des foudres de Neptune’ translating to: ‘coming from the night, they carry the thunder of Neptune’

Headquarters: Saint-Mandrier, Toulon, France

Also known as ‘Frogmen’ due to their combat diving speciality, Commando Hubert is the elite tier one unit out of the group and only combat divers. As such, only the best serve amongst their ranks, pooling from other Commandos units who have served a minimum of five years in the force. Given their designation, Hubert works extensively with other French units such as the GIGN in counter terrorism operations. However, Hubert is more widely renowned for their work alongside the DGSE’s Action Division. In fact, prior to the creation of CPEOM, Action Division’s clandestine combat swimmer group, Commando Hubert was the go to group for such activities. Today, Hubert continues to work alongside the DGSE and French Navy in maritime environments where their expertise is needed. (Source) (Source)

 ‘Tout le monde n’a pas vocation à faire ça’

‘Not everyone is meant to do this’

Paul-Henri Desgrees du Lou – President of the Amicale des Fusiliers Marins et Commandos

Given the unit’s high stature and extensive skill list, Hubert continuously trains in a multitude of environments and scenarios. As such, it is a widely known secret Hubert trains aboard Corsica Ferries vessels traversing between France and Corsica. Evidently, making Hubert a common occurrence to onlookers across Toulon. However, Huberts true speciality lies within their combat diving capabilities. Given their base in the Mediterranean, the underwater environment is favourable due to the currents. Meaning, Hubert is able to train all year round. Notably, Hubert has been involved in numerous CTLO missions such as the Tanit Incident and Operation Serval seen in section 7.0. (Source) (Source) (Source) (Source)

Responsibilities

  • Counter Terrorism and Hostage Rescue (CTLO)
  • Underwater Combat and Diving
  • Operational Intelligence
  • Direct Action at sea and land
  • Extractions

4.6 Commando Kieffer

Motto: ‘Honneur et Patrie’ translating to: ‘Honor and Country’

Headquarters: Lorient, France.

Conducting command and control, Kieffer is a highly innovative and specialised Commandos Marine unit. Dating back to the creation of France’s Free French Commandos, Phillipe Kieffer led the 177 British inspired commandos during D-Day. As such, Kieffer shares a highly sentimental value to the French military symbolically in the liberation of France. Fast forward to the 21st century, Kieffer was reinstated in 2008 to be the acting command and control unit of the Commandos. As such, when any unit is in operation, Kieffer departs alongside them to perform logistics and maintain weapons. (Source) (Source)

Responsibilities

  • Command and Control
  • Specialised Support Units such as drones
  • Operational Intelligence
  • Electronic Warfare
  • CBRN Warfare

4.7 Commando Ponchardier (circa 2015)

Motto: ‘A la vie a la mort’ translated to ‘In life and death’

Headquarters: Lorient, France

The heartline of the Commandos Marine, Ponchardier is the lifeline for logistics, boasting the largest contingent amongst the commandos. Originally dissolved in 1946 to be integrated with Hubert, Ponchardier was reinstated on 11 September 2015. Historically, Ponchardier descends from the training given by the SAS during the Second World War. Hence, Ponchardier’s aerial capabilities and experience. Additionally, their badge looks similar to that of the SAS’s. However, the crest (as displayed below) signifies instead the unit’s affiliation with the navy. Unlike the other six units, members within Ponchardier consist of naval personnel outside the Commandos Marine who specialise in technical and logistical support. (Source) (Source) (Source)

Responsibilities

  • Operational Support
  • Maritime support with specialised vehicles 
  • Land engagement with adaptive vehicles 
  • Air insertion and maintenance of specialised weapons

5.0 Equipment

Regarding weaponry, much information regarding the equipment used by the Commandos Marine is classified or unavailable. However, the French SOC uses the Directorate General of Armaments (DGA) and NATO’s Support and Procurement Agency (NSPA) to source weaponry and equipment. Additionally, the Commandos Marine utilises FORFUSCO’s FUSCOLAB for innovative purposes in the development of equipment (Source). Below is an exhaustive list of equipment known to be used. Additionally, much equipment used by French SOF is bought and tailored to each branch’s needs and environment. (Source) (Source)

5.1 Vehicles

  • Specialized Patrol Vehicles.
  • Light Reconnaissance and Support Vehicles.
  • ETRACO type boats (the most recent being EFlyCO project) (Source).
  • Futura type boats.
  • Vostok underwater vehicles.
  • Klepper two-seater kayak.
  • NH90 helicopter (Source).
  • Dry deck shelter (DDS) which are used aboard Frances Suffren class nuclear submarines. 
  • PSM3G third-generation swimmer delivery vehicle.
  • ECUME-NG boat.

5.2 Weapons

  • HK-416
  • HK-417
  • SP10M
  • Sako TRG-42
  • Barrett M82 
  • FN ENVOLYS
  • Minimi
  • MAG58
  • AT4CS
  • Akeron MP ATGM
  • Heckler & Koch USP 
  • Glock 17
  • PAMAS G1
  • MP5
  • FAMAS 

5.3 Equipment

  • FROGS
  • Oxymixgers
  • Thales Bonie HP
  • Thales Sophie and Safran JIM LR

6.0 Training

Joining the Commandos Marine is a challenging process. Overall, Commandos Marines undergo perhaps the most intense training and selection process across the French armed forces. Training is undergone in Lorient, France and aims to assess the physical as well as psychological abilities of all candidates. The typical pass rate of recruits is 40. (Source). In 2016 over 78 candidates undertook the course with only 14 graduating and becoming Commandos Marine. An attrition rate of 82%. (Source)

6.1 How to become a Commando Marine

In order to be a Commando Marine you must be between 19-29 years of age and a French citizen (Source). All candidates have to complete the Fusiliers-Marin Basic Training course and serve a minimum of nine months in the armed forces. Additionally, candidates must enrol in a special forces basic training course called Stage Commando (STAC). Finally, all candidates must either be an officer or a non-commissioned officer. (Source)

The course, Stage Commando, is reportedly 20 weeks long and includes:

  • 1 week of mental and physical testing
  • 6 weeks of training to prepare Stage Commando
  • 7 weeks of commando skills
  • 2 weeks of parachute training
  • 4 weeks of evaluation

Overall, the main purpose of this training is to test candidates’ physical and psychological attributes to deem them fit for Commandos Marine service. (Source)

6.2 Common Exercises with other French units

Exercise with other military units is essential to train and prepare units for combat readiness and effectiveness. For the Commandos Marine, such activities are essential in order to achieve operational superiority when on a mission as well as prepare alongside their comrades.

  • Commandos Marine have participated with French naval air groups (abbreviated to GAN in French) by practising raids via ECUME boats, force projection via sea to land via GAN helicopters, and force projection from land to sea. (Source)
  • Additionally, Commandos Ponchardier have trained with BSAM Rhône in the deployment of Commandos Marines via ETRACO boats along with an aerial insertion aboard the Rhône. (Source)
  • Airdrop insertion and collection at sea, assisted by the French Air and Space Force, as well as the navy during the ORION exercise in 2023. (Source)

7.0 Recent Operations

Since the end of World War Two, the Commandos Marine have been involved in numerous operations ranging from hostage rescues, evacuations, and protection detail along with conflicts such as Operation Allied Force in Yugoslavia and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.

7.1 Anti-Piracy Operations

Being a SOF capable of amphibious warfare and trained to conduct hostage rescuing at sea, the Commando Marine have been particularly active off the coast of Somalia against piracy since 2008.

7.2 Le Ponant Raid

In April 2008, Somali pirates boarded M/Y Le Ponant in the Gulf of Aden with all 30 crewmembers taken hostage as there were no guests onboard. The crew was later released after a ransom was paid to the pirates, they were then tracked and intercepted by the Commandos Marine by port Eyl in Northern Somalia. Overall, six pirates were captured out of the 12 and no Commandos were killed in the incident. (Source)

7.3 Carre d’As IV incident

September 2, 2008, saw another incident where Somali pirates took hostage two crew members on the French yacht Carre d’As IV. As a result, Commandos Marines seized the vessel killing one pirate and taking all six others into custody and rescuing the hostages.

7.4 Tanit incident

On April 4, 2009, Commandos Marine Hubert were deployed against another hijacking and hostage situation on the yacht Tanit. Therefore, two pirates were killed and three captured with all hostages rescued with the exception of the Captain who was killed in the shootout.

7.5 Deployment in Africa

The Commandos Marine were deployed in numerous missions during Operation Barkhane and Operation Serval across the Sahel, conducting counter-terrorist operations and operational support to other French units, allies, and other SOF forces such as Task Force Takuba.

7.6 Operation Serval

Operation Serval saw the French armed forces intervene in northern Mali to thwart the advance of Islamic insurgents pushing south of the country. During this operation, the Commandos Marine were deployed alongside other SOF and regular French units and conducted counter-insurgency (COIN) and counter-terrorist (CT) operations.

7.7 Operation Barkhane

Operation Barkhane followed up on the success of Operation Serval and saw the French military work alongside nations in Africa’s Sahel region against rising insurgency and terrorist threats. As a result, The Commandos Marine were deployed to conduct direct action and support French units conducting CT and COIN.

7.6 Burkina Faso Hostage Rescue

In 2019, Commandos Marine group Hubert undertook a hostage rescue operation to save four hostages of French, American, and South Korean nationality near Gorum-Gorum in Burkina Faso from militants of the Islamic State of the Great Sahara. Hubert was assisted by the French 1st Marine Infantry Parachute Regiment and Air Parachute Commando CPA 10 along with intelligence support by the US. Overall, The operation was a success with all hostages rescued. However, two commandos from Commando Hubert were killed in action. (Source)

8.0 Future of the Commandos Marine

Like many other SOF across the world, adaptation and constant training is needed to answer the changing dynamic of the 21st century. Given the withdrawal of French influence across west Africa and the Sahel, the current direction for the deployment of the Commandos will be reduced until another threat occurs against French interests. Evidently, like many Commandos before them, the men of today go through consistent training and preparedness to conduct their missions.

9.0 Conclusion

The Commandos Marine represents one of France’s most elite SOF units. Highly skilled and adaptive to aquatic, land-based, and aerial insertion, Commandos Marines train intensely in order to answer the call against a multitude of threats to France. Their history is rich in tradition and their mission is clear in the interests of France based on their operations. The Commandos Marine is definitely a topic worth exploring further if you are interested in special forces or counter-terrorism, ex-commando Louis Saillan has written a book which goes into more detail on the Commandos Marine titled “Chef de Guerre” (Warlord).

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