A Small War in Cameroon: looking back on the events of 1955-64

Elizabeth Rechniewski, University of Sydney

Over the last decade there has been great interest in the origins and development of COIN theory and the success or otherwise of its practical application in fields including Indochina and Algeria, not least because of the influence of the ‘French School’ of counter-revolutionary warfare on contemporary American military strategy, encapsulated in (FM) 3-24. In the discussion that has taken place and the books that have been written I have seen, however, very few references in English publications to a war that took place in French Cameroon between approximately 1955-1964. This is not perhaps surprising since even in France the war has been little discussed, overshadowed both at the time and since by the Algerian War of Independence that took place at roughly the same time. Whereas that war has seen a surge of publications, films and documentaries over the last fifteen years or so, the war in Cameroon remains little known and its very existence has been denied by official French spokesmen. Yet it might be of particular interest to military historians as another field in which the French developed and applied their theories of counter-revolutionary warfare.

Cameroon, originally a Portuguese, then a Dutch, then a German colony from 1884 until taken over by the French in 1916, did not in theory have the same status as other sub-Saharan French colonies but was mandated to France, along with Togo, by the League of Nations in 1922. The Mandate saw the former German colony of ‘Kamerun’ divided between France and Britain: four-fifths of the territory were given to the French; the remaining land to the West, which contained half the total population, was mandated to the British. Despite its special status as a mandated territory, it was governed in the same way as other French colonies: native Cameroonians were administered from 1924 by the all-encompassing code de l’indigénat that led to the imprisonment of thousands each year for ‘administrative’ offences. In the interwar years, French businesses, administrators and colonists settled in the French section and established large cocoa, rubber, banana, and palm oil plantations: by the 1950s there were some 17,000 white settlers in a population of around 3 million.

After WWII it became a United Nations Trust Territory, the mandate explicitly committing France (and Britain) to leading the colony towards ‘self-government or independence according to the freely expressed wishes of the people concerned’. France however continued to treat Cameroon in a very similar manner to her other colonies, including it in the various post WWII forms of Francophone communities, as an associated territory in the Union française and as a member of the CFA franc zone. UN missions would visit periodically and would be taken on carefully prepared tours to assess and report, generally in positive terms, on the progress the colony was making; and both pro and anti-independence Cameroonian representatives would periodically address the UN to put their case as to why independence should be hastened or delayed.

Despite French efforts at pre-emptive political reform (predictably resisted by the French settlers), from the late 1940s activism in favour of independence developed and crystallised with the founding in 1948 of the UPC – Union des Populations du Cameroun – a title that represented the attempt to group under one banner the numerous and disparate ethnic, linguistic and religious groups that existed in the country. Its principal demands were for democratic elections, independence within ten years and reunification of the British and French territories and in pursuit of these demands it organised petitions and lobbied the UN and foreign opinion. The extent to which the UPC represented the population as a whole, rather than certain groups in particular (notably the Bamileke), will be the subject of differing interpretations throughout its existence. In its early years it was stronger in the South, which was more urbanised and less traditional, and less dominated by the great chiefs of the North. Seven years after its founding, in 1955, the UPC controlled 460 village or neighbourhood committees and had 100,000 members, far more than other political parties (Teretta 98), particularly on the coast and in central, south and west Cameroon, among the Bamiléké and Bassa. The party published the papers La Voix du Cameroun, Lumière, Étoile and Vérité. and had active trade union (USCC), youth (JDC) and women’s wings (UDEFEC).

At the end of 1954, concerned by the growing influence of the UPC, the French government appointed a new, more intransigent High Commissioner, Roland Pré. Pré defined the UPC as the local agent of international communism (referring to it consistently as the ‘PC’, as if the initials stood for ‘parti communiste’) and turned to the new French theories of revolutionary war for inspiration in the ‘rollback’ of the UPC political organisations that had been, in his words, ‘noyautées par le parti communiste’ [infiltrated by the communist party][1]. In January 1955 he sent a copy of Colonel Charles Lacheroy’s ‘Une leçon de guerre révolutionnaire’ to the territory’s administrators, requesting that they read it with the greatest attention and consider its relevance to the situation they faced in Cameroon. His own views are revealed in his accompanying comments, where he concludes that ‘le Cameroun est en effet le sujet d’une action concertée’ [Cameroon is indeed the object of concerted action] which involves ‘ces techniques révolutionnaires’ [these revolutionary techniques – ie those described by Lacheroy] (Deltombe 154). Deltombe et al argue that in his circular of February 1955 Pré was the first French official to seek to apply in a systematic and coordinated way the tactics of counter-revolutionary war (150), even earlier than its deployment in Algeria.

These tactics included setting up parallel hierarchies to challenge the dominance of the UPC affiliated organisations, and a range of counter propaganda measures including educational films and support for regional newspapers that supported the French authorities. Pré authorised the banning of public meetings, constant harrassment and judicial pursuit of leaders, use of informers, police raids and arrests, culminating in the deadly repression of a UPC meeting on 25 May. Continuing violence between members of the UPC, French forces and European settlers led to him banning the party in July 1955 (it was banned in British Cameroon in 1957). The French government was determined to grant independence, if at all, on its own terms, according to its own timetable, and with a government that would be sympathetic to its geopolitical aims and business and resource interests; as the French High Commissioner (1956-58) Pierre Messmer wrote: ‘France will grant independence to those who call for the least, after eliminating politically and militarily those who demanded the most intransigeant line’ (quoted in Poilbout 88). France feared the influence of UPC demands, if successful, on the rest of French Africa and on French commercial interests, and also, Jean-François Bayart points out, as a source of possible support for the independence movement in Algeria (Bayart 452) with which the UPC had some limited contacts.

In its reports to the UN, France consistently referred to the UPC as a communist-inspired organisation under the influence of Moscow. The Catholic Church, dominant in Cameroon preached vehemently and constantly against the UPC as a ‘parti politique à tendances communistes’.[2] It is certainly true that some UPC leaders had been influenced by participation in discussion circles run by French communist teachers and trade unionists in Cameroon in the 1940s; they lobbied for support from non-aligned and Socialist countries, received political support from the French communist party and from the late 1950s the guerilla wing was strongly marked by maoism (Deltombe 342). The UPC received however almost no material, logistical or arms support from the Eastern block or other newly independent countries, except for Guinea, who may have supplied them with 40 Czech pistols (Briand 1961). Whether their movement would have been a trojan horse for international communism can never be decided; their initial demands however centred on free elections – in which they would be allowed to take part – with a view to securing genuine independence from France, and reunification with British Cameroon which Ahidjo himself achieved in 1961.

Banned in 1955, after some hesitation and internal dissension, the UPC took the decision to pursue their struggle clandestinely: UPC leaders went into exile or into the forests, from where they began to organise guerilla activity. In April 1956 Pré was replaced by Pierre Messmer, a former prisoner of the Vietminh, who sought to ‘pacify’ rebellious UPC strongholds by creating in December 1956 – January 1957 a security zone around the crucial Sanaga-Maritime region between Yaoundé, the capital, and the major port of Douala: the Zone de maintien de l’Ordre (ZOE). A parachute drop by two companies of the Colonial parachute infantry on Eséka airport on 20 December 1956 (4th GCCP Groupement colonial de Commandos parachutistes, 1st Commando)[3] was necessary to secure communications between Douala and Yaoundé.  Although Pierre Messmer wrote in his memoirs of his success in pacifying this region, from December 1957 the zone de pacification de Sanaga maritime (ZOPAC) was established, with headquarters in Eséka: 7000 km2 controlled by seven infantry companies that divided the territory into sections for enhanced control. [4] Military operations in the ZOPAC were placed under the control of Lieutenant-Colonel Lamberton, also a veteran of Indochina, who was once in charge of the 2ème bureau of French land forces in the Far East.  Lamberton, a former pupil of Colonel Charles Lacheroy, gave clear instructions in his Instruction générale n 1 on the tactics to be adopted by the Army. They reflect the principles of counter-revolutionary warfare that were being refined by officers such as he and which he later laid out in his Pacification de la Sanaga-Maritime, 1960:

The involvement of army units in the re-establishment of order in the Sanaga-Maritime implies a diligent cooperation with the administrative authority and above all the integration of the military and political action. They both have as objectives:

1. to remove the mass of the population from the physical and moral pressure of the leaders of the rebel organisation;

2. to isolate the military formations of the rebellion;

3. in order to favor their disintegration and result in their elimination.

To reach that goal, the processes to be adopted are the following:

1. the grouping of the population along the roads in order to facilitate its control and its security;

2. propaganda and counter-propaganda;

3 the research and exploitation of information…

In the fulfillment of this task, the mission of the Army is as follows:

The commanders of army units must:

1. Provide all the help in its power to install the population in the regroupment zones;

2. Organise the security of the populations (through the creation and/or the use of watch patrols and ambushes);

3. Hasten and check the fulfillment of the regroupments;

4. Support the propaganda and counter-propaganda efforts. [5]

Since the rebels had close support from the population, great importance was laid on information gathering which was undertaken by both civilian and military forces: police, gendarmes and soldiers, the feared BMM, brigades mixtes mobiles with patrols by loyal civilians (Prévitali 190). From the late 1950s, administrators and security forces ‘imposed an administrative grid throughout the territory, inventorying neighbourhoods and houses, counting the number of people in each and penalising those who lacked proper documentation.’ Neighbourhood chiefs and block chiefs were appointed and made responsible for security in their area (Terretta 227). The suspect population which, according to High Commissioner Torre ‘se fait complice du terrorisme’ [which is complicit in terrorism][6] was forcibly removed to camps, and cultivation in outlying areas was destroyed (Deltombe 279). Between 10-15,000 people were herded into stockades along the main roads where they could be easily controlled and separated from the rebels (Le Vine 165; Bieleu 135). A list of inhabitants of the camps was established and checked at regular rollcalls: any individual who happened to be in the wrong house was considered a rebel infiltrator while individuals who were unaccounted for were considered to have joined the rebels and their families or villages punished[7]. Suggestive of the degree of repression exercised against the local population in the late 1950s are the (falsely naïve?) comments of General Max Briand who reported in 1961: ‘Pour des raisons que j’ai mal déterminé, dans tout le Bamileke au début 1960, l’apparition ou le contact d’une unité française plongeait la population dans une peur panique.’ [For reasons that I have found hard to discover, throughout the region of Bamileke at the start of 1960, the appearance or contact with a French unit plunged the population into fear and panic] (Briand 1961).

Continued French Intervention after ‘Independence’

On January 1 1960 Cameroon was the first of the French sub-Saharan colonies to accede to a form of independence as the French, without organising new elections or formalising a Constitution, handed over power to Ahmadou Ahidjo and put in place the secret agreements for defence and military assistance which, combined with the close personal relationships established between French ministers and African francophone leaders, laid the underpinnings of Francafrique. Post-independence the rebellion continued, the UPC considering the Ahidjo government illegitimate; the French ambassador Jean-Pierre Bénard reported in early 1960 that the rebels ‘controlled most of the country’ (Deltombe 403). Ahidjo, drawing on the secret defence agreement with France, requested its intervention to quell the rebellion and maintained the emergency powers and measures that included curfews, control of travel, widespread use of informants, raids and arrests of ‘suspects’ and torture. French and newly trained Cameroonian forces with French officers (many of whom had been involved in the Algerian War: Lieutenant Jacques-Louis Lefèvre, Colonel René Gribelin, General Max Briand and many others) plus colonial troops, continued the fight against the UPC: in 1960 de Gaulle sent 300 officers to coordinate the action and five overseas battalions of colonial troops commanded by General Max Briand (Schmidt 182), armoured vehicles, helicopters and T6 G planes adapted for anti-guerilla warfare[8]. The Groupement Tactique du Nord (Northern command, covering north Mungo and the department of Bamileke) under Colonel Gribelin consisted of 11 companies of colonial infantry, 13 squads of gendarmes, 49 groups of commandos supplétifs: a total of 3,500 men, including 1,500 commandos (Deltombe 404). The Groupement Tactique Sud (GTS) operated in the south Mungo, Wouri, Sanaga-Maritime and Nkam regions under Lt Colonel André Laurière, who advocated the rigorous application of ‘collective responsibility’ to those villages suspected of harbouring rebels (Deltombe 452). The role of French troops was to be kept discreet: on 18 January 1960 Pierre Guillaumat, Minister of the Army sent a secret instruction to the Commandant interarmées that action must appear to be that of the Cameroonian government and forces (Bieleu 148). Although military operations passed officially to Cameroonian command from 1 January 1961, the French retained effective control over the armed forces though the exercise of a ‘military mission’ until December 1964.

Amongst the tactics used by the French or by Cameroonian troops and agents with their support were aerial bombardments of ‘rebel territory’, including the use of incendiary bombs (Deltombe 404); targeted assassinations of UPC leaders, both inside and outside the country, including the well-attested assassination of Félix Moumié, poisoned with thalium by a French secret agent, William Bechtel, in Geneva in 1960[9]. The historic leader Ruben um Nyobe had been tracked down and killed in 1958; the execution of Ernest Ouandié marked the end of the rebellion in 1971. Throughout the period of the rebellion, from 1955 on, the French then the Cameroonian authorities exercised political control over the population through censorship, press seizures, and the French secret service: the SDECE (Service de Documentation extérieur et de Contre–Espionnage) and SCEDE-Afrique created in 1960 by Maurice Robert with a Cameroonian branch, le SDESC. Arbitrary arrests, torture and public executions took place in a score of internment camps, including Mantoum, Tcholliré, Yoko. Le Monde journalist Philippe Decraene reports the display of the heads of executed rebels in public places in 1965 and writes of the terrified silence that had descended on the population in the wake of the exactions of both authorities and guerillas.[10] The rebellion petered out in 1971, having degenerated into sporadic acts of violence as isolated guerilla groups were tracked down and eliminated.

While it is extremely difficult to establish reliable casualty figures for the whole period, General Briand gives the figure of 21,000 Cameroonian dead in 1960 alone, including 6,000 fighters, 10,000 who died as a result of ‘internal combat’ (not defined) and 5,000 who ‘died of illness’ (in camps?). The authorities in British Cameroon estimated civilian deaths in the period December 1956 to June 1964 at between 61,300 and 76,300, 80% in the Bamileke region alone (Terretta 1); UPC estimates range upwards from 200,000 for all the years of the conflict. Whatever opinions may be held of the justification of the guerilla war waged by the UPC, and the violence which it also inflicted on the local populations, there is no doubting that what took place in French Cameroon between 1955 and 1964 was ‘une terrible guerre civile’ in the words of J-F Bayart (452) in which French and Cameroonian troops deployed counter-insurgency tactics that had been honed in Indochina and, more or less contemporaneously, in Algeria. The interesting questions include whether these tactics were applied as the theory dictated, and whether they were ‘successful’. They were deployed arguably at great cost to the democratic evolution and economic development of the nation, which has remained an autocratic, corrupt and impoverished country to the present day.

The war in Cameroon has been researched in great depth by Thomas Deltombe and collaborators in Kamerun! Since this work is not available in English, the author has attempted to summarise the principal phases and nature of French military intervention, using this and other sources. She is not a military historian but is motivated by the belief that the war deserves to be better known in the English–speaking world and in the context of discussion of COIN theory and practice. She welcomes comments, corrections and additional information that would advance this knowledge. As this is intended as a discussion paper and not a full-length article she has limited the footnotes and restricted the references to works cited.

Works Cited

Atangana, Martin (2010) The End of French Rule in Cameroon. Lanham,Maryland: University  Press of America.


Bayart, Jean-François (1978) ‘L’Union des populations du Cameroun et la décolonisation de l’Afrique ‘française’’. Cahiers d’études africaines, vol 18: 71, 447-457.


Bieleu, Victorin Hameni (2012) Politique de défense et sécurité nationale du Cameroun. Paris: L’Harmattan.


Briand, Max (1961) ‘Rapport sur les opérations militaires au Cameroun en 1960’. Yaoundé. http://www.calameo.com/books/0005107004e99b387fc39


Deltombe, Thomas, Manuel Domergue and Jacob Tatsista (2011) Kamerun! Une guerre cachée aux origines de la Françafrique. Paris: edns La Découverte.


Le Vine, Victor T. (1964) The Cameroons, from Mandate to Independence. Berkeley: University of California Press.


Poilbout, Aurélien (2014) ‘Sub-Saharan Africa: a Key Issue for France in the Cold War’ in Toyin Falola and Charles Thomas (eds), Securing Africa: Local Crises and Foreign Interventions.  NY/London: Routledge, 83-136.


Prévitali, Stéphane (1999) Je me souviens de Ruben: Mon témoignage sur les maquis camerounais 1953-1970. Paris: edns Karthala.


Schmidt, Elizabeth (2013) Foreign Intervention in Africa: From the Cold War to the War on Terror. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Terretta, Meredith (2013) Nation of Outlaws, State of Violence: Nationalism, Grassfields Tradition, and State Building in Cameroon. Athens,Ohio: Ohio University Press.




[1] From the title of the ten-page circular of 4 February 1955.

[2] ‘Une mise en garde des évêques du Cameroun contre les activités des communistes’, Le Monde, 8.04.55.

[3] History of Military Operational Parachute Jumps, http://www.specialforcesassociation.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Combat_Jump_Record_03.07.2013.pdf

 Jean Le Guillou, « Une pacification réussie : la réduction de la rébellion upéciste en Sanaga maritime (Cameroun 1957-1958)».

[5]  ‘Plan of Action for the Sanaga-Maritime’ presented by Lamberton and approved by Doustin and Gl Le Puloch. Quoted in Atangana, 62.

[6]  Xavier Torre, High Commissioner from February 1958, quoted in Bieleu, 141.

[7] Deltombe et al, ch 15: ‘ZOPAC (1): regrouper et endoctriner’ and ch 16: ‘ZOPAC (II): traquer et exterminer’ describe in detail these methods.

[8] The presence of these planes is attested by Previtali, 161, a road engineer who gives extensive technical detail of their adaptation.

[9] Long suspected, the operation was admitted by General Paul Aussaresses in Je n’ai pas tout dit. Paris: Edns du Rocher, 2008, 106-8.

[10] Philippe Decraene, ‘Le Cameroun en quête de paix et d’unité’, Le Monde 12.03.1965.

Cite this blog post
Elizabeth Rechniewski (2014, October 27). A Small War in Cameroon: looking back on the events of 1955-64. After the Cold War. Retrieved June 18, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/ql77

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