Recently Moroccan satellite TV audiences tuned in to ARTE, the Franco-German cultural channel, to see Daniel Cling's excellent new documentary, Abdelkrim et la Guerre du Rif. For many, it was the first time footage on this war from Morocco's colonial past was seen on TV.
The war was important in many ways – a short-lived "Republic of the Rif" with its own banknotes; a groundbreaking Spanish amphibious landing decades before D-Day; and one of the first times chemical weapons were used against civilians. The Third Rif War, 1921-26.
But what caught our attention was the silent-film sequence on the steps of the French Prime Minister's residence, when France proudly paraded its special recruits in the war against a tribal rebellion: the American pilots of the Lafayette Escadrille, of World War I fame, now back to fly for France, this time in North Africa.
The romantic notion of American flyboys so eager to fight Germans that they enlisted in the French forces is enshrined in films like this 1958 Tab Hunter vehicle (image from MoviePoster.com).
But the idea of American mercenaries recruited to bomb and strafe in what was one of the twentieth century's first wars of national liberation is perhaps less appealing. Little has been written about this episode, but we have found two excellent articles, both in French. El-Mostafa Azzou of Morocco's University of Oujda has written this article carried by Cairn.info, and William Dean, of the US Air Force Air Command and Staff College (ACSC), whose article "Americans in the Rif Rebellion" is featured in the French Revue Historique des Armées.
Writes William Dean:
July 1925: an American colonel named Charles Sweeney, who had served with the Foreign Legion in World War I and later in the US Army, proposed to Prime Minister Painlevé to create an escadrille of American pilots who were veterans of the Escadrille Lafayette. [T]he Painlevé government foresaw that there would be some political difficulties. To avoid upsetting the isolationist government of President Coolidge, these American mercenary aviators were to technically be in the service of the Sultan (or Chérif) Yusef of Morocco, who was the de jure ruler of the country. This was the reason why the unit was called the Escadrille Chérifienne… also referred to in documents as the Escadrille Américaine.
William Dean and El-Mostafa Azzou both describe the motivation of the French authorities to create a propaganda coup with the Escadrille, helping to counter pro-Riffian sentiment in the United States ("the American Friends of the Rif"). American newspapers carried editorials against the war, and against involvement by Americans on the side of the French and Spanish colonizers. The American Legation in Tangier warned the American aviators that US law prohibited fighting in a war against people with whom the US had no quarrel ("Enlistment of American citizens for military service in Morocco").
In the end, US government concerns about violations of neutrality and hostile public opinion brought the chapter of the Escadrille Chérifienne to a close after only six weeks of combat operations. France's new Moroccan warlord, Maréchal Philippe Pétain, lauded the pilots for their "devotion to the French cause."
In one of the ironies of history, a bare twenty years later, OSS agent and anthropologist Carleton S. Coon worked out of the Tangier American Legation in the lead up to the November 1942 Operation Torch landings in North Africa. His job: should Spain join the Axis powers, Coon was to spark a rebellion by the Rif tribes as a diversion to help shield the Allied landing force.
In the end, Spain remained officially neutral, and the tribes kept their powder dry. Evidently, the bombs dropped by the Lafayette Escadrille two decades before hadn't created any lasting animosity against Americans in the Rif mountains.