By: Warren Gray
Copyright © 2022
“Fighting soldiers from the sky,
Fearless men who jump and die…
Trained to live off nature’s land,
Trained in combat, hand-to-hand.”
— Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler, 1966,
Ballad of the Green Berets.
At exactly 6:00 AM on the morning of Tuesday, November 24, 1964, five U.S. Air Force C-130E Hercules propeller-driven, four-engine, transport aircraft in bare-metal finish, using the callsigns of “Dragon One” through “Dragon Five,” flew just 700 feet above the runway at Stanleyville Airport (now Simisini Air Base) in Congo-Léopoldville (formerly the Belgian Congo, until 1960, and now called Kisangani, in the Democratic Republic of Congo). They dropped 320 elite, Belgian Para-Commandos within a matter of seconds, in a daring assault named Operation Dragon Rouge(French for “Red Dragon”).
These Belgian Special Forces paratroopers were armed with FN FAL and FAL Para battle rifles in 7.62mm NATO (with 21-inch or 18-inch barrels), Vigneron M2 submachine guns in 9mm, FN MAG M2 machine guns in 7.62mm NATO, and FN P35 Hi-Power service pistols in 9mm. They rapidly descended upon the grassy strip used as a drop zone adjacent to the runway, clad in camouflaged, uniform jackets (1956 “jigsaw” pattern) and wearing their distinctive, maroon berets, even into combat.
Communist-supported (Marxist), fierce, African Simba (“Lion”) rebels had taken over the region by force, holding approximately 2,000 European (from Belgium and up to 20 more countries) hostages, and 30 Americans, for the previous four months, and horrifically tortured and executed hundreds of Congolese citizens.
So, the U.S. and Belgian governments jointly decided to intervene in the form of Operation Dragon Rouge, led by Colonel Charles Laurent, commander of the Belgian Para-Commando Regiment. The Congolese government had also hired a 300-man, mercenary force under Irish-born (but living in South Africa) Major Michael “Mad Mike” Hoare, known as 5 Commando, or informally as the “Wild Geese.” These “Wild Geese” were to assist the Belgian rescue force by arriving in a five-mile-long, ground convoy that same morning, further aided by 790 Congolese soldiers and gendarmes.
Fighting against an estimated 600 Simba insurgents in the area (half near the airport, and the other half in town), the Belgians secured the airfield and cleared the blocked runway within 40 minutes. This permitted seven more C-130s to land, for later hostage evacuation. An American C-130E pilot on-scene later described their efforts as “nothing short of miraculous.” Next, the Para-Commandos headed for downtown Stanleyville, where approximately 250 European hostages were known to be held at the Hotel Victoria, by drunken, renegade, Simba warriors dressed in monkey-fur robes and feathers. As the Para-Commandos approached, the rebels randomly massacred about 30 hostages (including two American missionaries) and heavily wounded 40 more, mostly women and children. This angered the Belgian soldiers, who fought fiercely.
Operation Dragon Rouge was a resounding success, with hundreds of Simba warriors killed, for the loss of only two Belgians killed and 12 wounded. The forces swiftly rescued 1,650 foreign hostages and 150 Congolese civilians on the first day alone, then about 350 more people the next day. The delayed, mercenary force arrived from the east a few hours later, and hunted down the murderous rebels with a vengeance. Mike Hoare later estimated that his force had killed 5,000 to 10,000 Simbas from 1964 through 1965.
The C-130E aircrew members were later all awarded Air Medals and the coveted 1964 MacKay Trophy for the most-meritorious flight of the year. One pilot (Captain Mack Secord) received the Distinguished Flying Cross for evacuating hostages under heavy gunfire. Dragon Rouge was certainly the most-ambitious, peacetime, combat operation ever performed by the U.S. government up to that point, and to this day remains the largest, successful, hostage-rescue mission in history.
But, there’s a little more to this story that you won’t find it in any history book. In mid-1987, I met a U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel at Hurlburt Field, Florida. He was an intelligence officer in a headquarters desk job. I’ll call him Robert “Bob” Harris, but that isn’t his real name. Three highly-credible, Air Force special operations personnel, a major, a captain, and a master sergeant (two of whom were former combat controllers and Vietnam War veterans, and one was an intelligence parachutist, like me) reported that Colonel Harris had “jumped into the Congo (with the Belgians in ’64), later jumped into Libya, and spent six months in a Libyan prison,” among other incredible exploits, as a young, Air Force intelligence officer seconded to the CIA for various covert operations in the 1960s.
Harris seemed like a nice-enough guy, average-looking, middle-aged, slightly balding, and approaching retirement. But seeing no badges on his blue, uniform shirt, made me mildly skeptical of the fantastic stories told about him. A few weeks later, I returned to Hurlburt Field on official business, and met Colonel Harris again, at the very beginning of a formal, military dinner and ceremony. He was wearing his mess dress uniform (a military tuxedo), with more miniature medals on his chest than I’ve ever seen on anyone, looking like about eight rows of four medals each, running from mid-chest level all the way up to his left shoulder board, including numerous awards of the Silver Star for heroism, and the Bronze Star with V-device, for valor. I was more than impressed.
“He’s not wearing any jump wings,” I quietly pointed out, stunned but still questioning, to an ex-combat controller and war veteran, who was then an intelligence specialist at the 1st Special Operations Wing. “They don’t award jump wings at Camp Peary,” he bluntly reminded me, referring to the CIA’s main training center for case officers and paramilitary operatives. After that, I believed every wild story about Colonel Harris. In fact, only two years later, I worked for another Air Force lieutenant colonel who had been seconded to the Agency as a sniper in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, but ended up in an ordinary, Air Force job in later years. From him, I learned that these kinds of bizarre things definitely did happen some years ago.
Today, the Kingdom of Belgium’s very finest troops are incorporated into the Special Operations Regiment (SOR), commanded by Colonel Tom Bilo. It consists of the Special Forces Group (SFG), 2nd Commando Battalion (2 Cdo), 3rd Parachute Battalion (3 Para), Commando Training Center (CE Cdo), Parachutist Training Center (CE Para), and the 6th Communication and Information Systems Group (6 CIS Gp), totaling 1,500 men. They’ve had peacekeeping experience in Kosovo, Cote D’Ivoire, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly the Belgian Congo), as well as combat experience in Afghanistan over the past several years.
The Special Forces Group, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Raphaël Bechet and based at Heverlee, is the nation’s most-elite unit, tasked with counterterrorism, direct action, unconventional warfare, special reconnaissance, hostage rescue, foreign internal defense, and personnel recovery. Their three primary tasks, however, are special reconnaissance (SR), direct action (DA), and military assistance (MA) to friendly forces. The group is comprised of four air operations teams (airborne/heliborne), two amphibious operations teams (scuba, boats, kayaks, etc.), and four land operations teams (vehicle mobility, and mountain expertise). Each team is manned by an officer, a senior NCO, and 10 operators.
All candidates to join the Special Forces must have at least three years (preferably four or more) of military service in order to apply. There is a three-week, selection phase, focusing on physical conditioning, shooting techniques, and map reading. Once selected, basic Special Forces Qualification training lasts for six months. It includes map reading, working independently, navigation and orienteering, shooting skills, survival skills, Special Forces tactics, recognition of foreign military equipment, medical techniques, close-combat drills, radio procedures, amphibious insertion, military theory and tactics, advanced shooting, and combat medical skills.
After being certified as a Special Forces operator, the 12-month, Complementary Education phase begins. It includes such courses as Parachutist Qualification, Commando Qualification, Free-fall High-Altitude Parachuting, Tactical Air Controller, Urban Combat, Security Agent (DAS), and Sniper Training.
Finally, there is a Functional Training period for additional courses, such as Very-High-Altitude (30,000 feet) Parachuting, Combat Diver, Commando Instructor, Lead Climber, or other specialized courses.
Belgian Special Forces normally wear the 2005 fourth variation of the national, “jigsaw,” woodland-camouflage pattern, but there is also a three-color, desert uniform, very similar to the older, American, Desert Combat Uniform (DCU), for service in the Middle East. More recently, since 2016, SFG members have been seen wearing highly-effective, MultiCam uniforms, and this appears to be a growing trend.
All SFG soldiers and paratroopers (3 Para) wear maroon berets, while 2 Commando wears Sherwood-green berets. The beret badge of the SFG is identical to its World War Two (WW2) ancestor, the 5th Special Air Service (Belgian SAS), with the SOR and SFG both sharing the famous, British SAS motto, “Who Dares, Wins.” Belgian parachutist wings are still nearly identical to British jump wings, being blue and white on an OD-green, cloth background. The commando qualification brevet is an inverted, black triangle, bearing an embroidered, Fairbairn-Sykes commando dagger of WW2 fame.
Here are the current weapons of the Belgian Special Forces:
Pistols: The standard, Special Forces handgun is the FN Five-seveN MK2 in 5.7x28mm (See my Gunpowder Magazine article on “The FN Five-seveN: A Fistful of Firepower” from August 14, 2021), although DAS agents use the Glock-17 in 9x19mm. 5.7mm ammunition includes SS190 military, armor-piercing rounds.
Also, VBR-Belgium (Van Bruaene Rik) of Roesealare, in western Belgium, about 12 miles south of Bruges, produces 5.7x28mm Controlled-Fragmentation ammunition since 2003, using pointed-nose, armor-piercing, steel penetrator rounds that produce huge wound cavities, and fragment violently into two (their B-2-F load) or three (their 40 grain, B-3-PF1 load) hard projectiles. It’s highly likely that the Belgian Special Forces use this locally-manufactured, high-performance ammunition.
The Fabrique Nationale (FN) arms factory is located in Herstal, Belgium, only seven miles from the Dutch border, so the extensive use of FN firearms by Belgian soldiers is a matter of considerable, national pride.
Assault Rifles: The standard, service rifle of the SFG and SOR is the FN SCAR-L CQC in 5.56x45mm NATO, with 10-inch barrel, although the SCAR-L STD with 14-inch barrel is also in use. SOR pathfinders also use the FN F2000 in 5.56mm, often with an FN40GLgrenade launcher attached.
Battle Rifles: The FN SCAR-H CQC in 7.62x51mm NATO (See my Gunpowder Magazine article on “The Mk. 17 SCAR-H Battle Rifle” from February 22, 2021) with 13-inch barrel is the preferred weapon of Special Forces combat divers, with 63 ordered.
Submachine guns (SMGs)/Personal Defense Weapons (PDWs): The standard PDW is the FN P90 in 5.7x28mm, although DAS agents use the B&T (Swiss) MP9-N submachine gun in 9mm.
Sniper rifles: The standard, SFG sniper rifle is now the FN SCAR-H PR (Precision Rifle, with 20-inch barrel) in 7.62x51mm NATO, with 287 ordered to replace the Accuracy International AW. Other sniper rifles include the Accuracy International AXMC in .338 Lapua Magnum, and the Barrett M107A1 in .50 BMG, with 59 delivered in 2014.
Machine guns: The standard-issue, light machine gun is the FN Minimi M3 Tactical SB (Short Barrel) in 5.56mm, featuring a 13.7-inch, Minimi Para barrel and adjustable stock. Their medium machine gun used to be the venerable FN MAG in 7.62mm NATO, but it is now being replaced by 242 FN Minimi 7.62 M3 guns in 7.62mm NATO. The standard, heavy machine gun is the Browning M2HB QCB in .50 BMG, normally employed as a vehicle-mounted weapon.
Grenade launchers: The Heckler and Koch GMG automatic grenade launcher in 40x53mm is used as a vehicle-mounted weapon. The FN40GL is the standard-issue, rifle-mounted weapon, specifically designed to be used with FN SCAR rifles.
Other weapons: Belgian Special Forces also use the German-made, HAFLA-35Lsingle-shot, disposable, red-phosphorous, incendiary weapon, with a range of up to 100 yards.
Tactical vehicles: These include the British-manufactured, Jankel Fox RRV (Rapid-Response Vehicle), based upon the Toyota Land Cruiser design, and the Jankel LTTV (Light Troop-Transport Vehicle), based upon the Mercedes Unimog U5000 platform, both of which are usually armed with a heavy machine gun or grenade launcher.
Air Support: Tactical air support for the SOR and SFG is provided by the Belgian Air Component (Air Force), with 13 A109BA and four NH90-TTH helicopters of 1 Wing at Beauvechain Air Base, as well as three Airbus A400M tactical airlift aircraft of 15 Wing at Brussels/Melsbroek Air Base for transportation and parachuting. All formerly-operated, C-130H Hercules transports have been retired, as of December 21, 2018.
In conclusion, the Belgian Special Forces are a time-honored, highly successful, counterterrorism force, modernized and well-equipped for combating international terrorism in an uncertain world.
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Warren Gray is a retired, U.S. Air Force intelligence officer with experience in joint special operations and counterterrorism. He served in Europe and the Middle East, earned Air Force and Navy parachutist wings, four college degrees, and was a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Intelligence Operations Specialist Course, and the USAF Combat Targeting School. He is currently a published author and historian. You may visit his web site at: warrengray54.vistaprintdigital.com.