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The footballer and his band of killers

Alexandre Villaplane and the 'Phalange nord-africaine' in the Dordogne.

Alexandre Villaplane described the day he led the French national football team against Mexico in the inaugural FIFA World Cup as “the best day of my life.” The ‘Platini of the late 1920s’ was a player of immense talent, sought after by big French clubs just as the game was becoming openly professional. Born in Algeria in 1905, Villaplane was the first player of North African origin to represent France and for him that 1930 World Cup would be the pinnacle of his twenty-five cap career. Subsequently his star would fade. In 1944 he would be executed by his countrymen as the worst type of traitor.

Alexandre Villaplane, formerly captain of the French national football team, later a member of the Gestapo Française and a leader of the Brigade Nord-Africaine. (Collection Patrice Rolli/Archives Nationales)

At the height of his sporting powers Villaplane had been well paid and well-known in the social circles of Paris and the Cote d’Azur where he lived the high life but developed a dangerous love of gambling. Soon disinterested by the game of football he would end his career in the lower divisions. In 1935 he was imprisoned for his involvement in a horse racing scandal.

Villaplane’s involvement in racketeering took on new dimensions just as Paris became occupied in June 1940. Profiting from the misfortune of Jews, he was amongst those in the Paris underground who saw the occupation as a wonderful business opportunity. A well-connected gold dealer, he also involved himself with rackets carried out by a network of false policemen.

Black marketeers thrived in occupied Paris, procuring items such as good food or fine art for certain Germans. Henri Lafont, a career petty criminal, became ensconced in the Nazi machine as a man who could find just about anything for anybody. Pierre Bonny, once a famous police officer until disgraced and jailed for corruption, struck up a business relationship with him and they, together with Villaplane, formed a gang dubbed the French Gestapo. Their base, 93 rue Lauriston, became one of the most notorious addresses in the capital as the Gestapo handed certain responsibilities over to their new allies

In June 1943 Lafont combined with a North African nationalist named Mohammed El-Maadi. The former French North African colonies were lost for the Nazis and downtrodden anti-colonialist and anti-communist sympathisers such as El-Maadi, whose newspaper had been bankrolled by Hitler himself, could be well-used. Lafont envisaged that those 1940 prisoners of war of North African origin could be freed to form an army of some fifty-thousand men. These, he argued, could ensure the annihilation of the Resistance in the provinces.

Lafont and El-Maadi’s vision was moderated by SS colonel Helmut Knochen, chief of the Gestapo in France, and a force of some three hundred men was authorised. El Maadi was put to work recruiting men that were readily available and attracted by the 5,000 francsa month salary, more than the going rate at the time.

Members of the Brigade Nord-Africaine (La Phalange) and of the Gestapo at the start of the Brehmer operations, late March 1944. (Collection Patrice Rolli/Archives Départementales de la Haute-Vienne)

The Brigade Nord-Africaine (BNA) was formed as an auxiliary of the German police in areas of France where the Gestapo and the French police were struggling to contain or reduce the increasingly violent and effective attacks by the French Resistance on German military units. The Dordogne had been identified by the Abwehr as one such département. Other BNA units targeted the Corrèze while further units were sent to Montbéliard in the east of France.

Despite a small amount of military training while stationed in Paris, the BNA’s involvement in any actual combat with the maquis was minimal. The BNA, or ‘Phalange’ as it became known, was made up primarily of non-military men many of whom had criminal backgrounds. Locals in the Dordogne came to know them as ‘les bicots’ a pejorative term originating in France’s dark colonial past.

Villaplane, and his equivalents were given the SS grade of Untersturmfuhrer and wore a German uniform, as did Lafont. A fifty or so strong division, commanded by Villaplane, arrived in the region's capital, Périgueux, in March 1944. They were a strange looking bunch at best. Dressed in a combination of sheep skin jackets with baggy blue boiler suits and berets, they wore thick leather belts with a Waffen SS buckle and were armed with machine guns and grenades.

Members of the BNA in Périgueux April 1944 dressed in their distinctive uniform. (Collection Patrice Rolli)

Following the introduction of the Service de Travail Obligatoire (STO) in late 1943, maquis ranks had swollen. Their confidence had grown, knowing that not only did they have superior numbers to the Germans, but that they only had to disrupt the Germans. They did not engage in frontal assaults, and they understood significant German reinforcements were unlikely to arrive. The tactics employed that involved the BNA over approximately six months were unforseen. Resistance leaders had to make difficult decisions and wrestle with their own consciousness as executions and deportations resulted from maquis activity. During this time the unique brand of terror meted out be the BNA became the stuff of nightmares.

Michael Hambrecht, the fearsome and often drunk Gestapo boss of the Dordogne, turned a blind eye to the violence and crime committed by members of the BNA.

Michael Hambrecht during operations against the maquis

Instead he tasked them to become enforcers for the various German units in the area. They served the Brehmer Division of the Wehrmacht sent to crush the Perigordin maquis. The 11th Panzer or “Ghost” Division, beleaguered but ruthless and stationed in nearby Bordeaux, was responsible for many of the worst atrocities and used the Phalange in many of its operations. The 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich, so infamous for its own war crimes in Tulle and Oradour-sur-Glane, passed through on its way north in early June and also commandeered them to carry out some of its dirty work in the area.

Official records are scarce but those available, as well as the many eye witness accounts and reports by the police judiciare, tell of pillage, rape, plundering and burning of property, extortion and profiteering. However, that was just the tip of the iceberg. Arrests, deportations or summary murders of civilians and executions of suspects took place on an almost daily basis. As an auxiliary police force to the Gestapo, its members held carte blanche to do as they pleased. They were hardly accountable to anyone. But the massacres were on a different scale. These were ordered by the Germans and executed by the Phalange.

In March the town of Brantôme was the first to feel the full force with twenty-five hostages bussed in to be executed in a show of force designed to persuade the local population to inform on maquis activity.The following day in Sainte-Marie-de Chignac a further twenty-five hostages, mainly Jews, were executed. Both were in retaliation for maquis ambushes. Many other towns and villages suffered losses of innocent inhabitants as well as maquis sympathisers, Jews or refugees. The events of 11 June 1944 (by which time it is likely that Alexandre Villaplane had been replaced by the even more brutal Raymond Monange) are perhaps the most striking of all. On that day the town of Mussidan, twenty kilometres west of Périgueux, had its name etched into the history of Nazi barbarity. An armoured train heading from Périgueux to Montpon was attacked by the maquis.Thirteen Germans were killed in the firefight, and a further ten were taken prisoner. Consequently, the entire male population of the town and surrounding hamlets were rounded up and questioned, many tortured. Michael Hambrecht arrived in the town late in the afternoon along with thirty members of the Phalange. Already visibly drunk he had been told to personally select fifty men for execution.

Of those under sixty years of age that had been retained, he chose forty-eight who were then led to a nearby alleyway overlooking farm land. Along the way they passed the line of men that had just been released.

Hostages gathered in front of the mairie in Mussidan on 11 June 1944. Those on the left would be released. Those on the right with their hands in the air would be shot that evening. (Collection Patrice Rolli)

There they stood in two rows for more than two hours until finally they were mown down by machine guns operated by Phalange members who then finished off survivors with hand guns. Later the mayor and his adjoint were tortured and killed while two other men were killed in the street taking the death toll that day to fifty-two. All the bodies were left where they fell. Miraculously two men survived the massacre. The town was then pillaged.

The BNA was formed to help stem the growing success of the Resistance and turn an irresistible tide of Allied success. It would not last for long. When Paris was liberated and order resumed many of its constituent members were located and brought to trial.

Villaplane himself had been a petty criminal more than a mass killer, and his style was cynical rather than murderous. Circumstances led to far more serious crimes and it is not clear how many, if any, people Villaplane killed by his own hand. He was, however, involved in beatings, sometimes wearing a smile, and he behaved in an extraordinarily cruel way.

On sensing that the tide was turning against Germany he began to play the role of a patriotic Frenchman trying his best to save the lives of his countrymen. But even this was usually done for some financial gain. In his trial in 1944 his prosecutor deemed him a schemer and a con-man who committed “the black-mail of hope”. For this alone it can be argued that his execution on 26 December 1944 alongside Lafont and Bonny, condemned as one of the most despicable traitors in his country’s history, was inevitable.

Principal sources

Rolli, Patrice, La Phalange nord-africaine en Dordogne, Périgueux: Éditions l’Histoire en partage, 2014.

Penaud, Guy, Les Crimes de la Division “Brehmer”. Périgueux: La Lauze, 2004.

Penaud, Guy, Histoire de de la Resistance en Périgord. Périgueux: Éditions Sud Ouest, 2013.

Lagrange, Jacques,1944 en Dordogne. Périgueux: Editions Pilote 24, 1993.

Archives Départementaux de la Dordogne, Périgueux, 1 573 W6: Prefecture de la Dordogne, Crimes de guerre commis en Dordogne par les troupes allemandes et leurs auxiliaires: Report by Ministère de la Justice, 29 November 1944.

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