Uniting Africa

WHEN THE VICHY GOVERNMENT reconfirmed its commitment to the Trans-Saharan Pipeline, Charles Bedaux left the internment camp at Compiègne. Sumner Jackson had left a week earlier, and more ‘special cases’ were allowed to return to their homes in Paris. Charles Junior was released several days after his father. In the meantime, Bedaux lobbied the Germans to obtain transportation, fuel, building materials and heavy machinery for the African pipeline. ‘The German authorities were not particularly impressed,’ Gaston Bedaux wrote, ‘but Charles was so persuasive, so seductive, that he made his point.’ It happened at a meeting, where Gaston observed his brother ‘at a green baize table surrounded by Frenchmen in civilian clothes and Germans in uniform. The French nodded, and the Germans said nothing. All of a sudden, my brother looked more severe than before and, turning towards the Germans, said to them, “Messieurs, you are the victors. That is a great responsibility.”’ The Germans, Gaston recalled, looked thoughtful and finally granted him an Ausweis and ‘the required raw materials’. Dr Franz Medicus’s Department of Administrative Economy set aside 15,000 litres of fuel, 140 kilograms of lubricants and 350 litres of oil for an expedition to survey the route. The supplies would await Bedaux at Casablanca. In addition, he would take thirty engineers and surveyors, a fleet of American trucks, Ford tractors and 200 labourers. He confidently predicted to Gaston that the pipeline would supply peanut oil to France at an annual rate of 200,000 tons within a year.

Gaston asked Charles whether he was afraid of tackling a job, difficult even in peacetime, that could be impossible during a war. ‘But that’s why I’m going there,’ Charles answered. To Gaston, his brother’s motives were humanitarian, removing the Sahara ‘as a barrier to human progress’. More cynically, Janet Flanner wrote, ‘This peanut scheme was the pinnacle in the fantasy, intelligence, and possible treason of Bedaux’s business career, since it might actually have squeezed hundreds of thousands of tons of fat a year out of his projected Niger Valley peanut plantations for our enemies, the fat-hungry Herrenvolk, masters of the Continent.’ The project stood to increase Charles’s considerable fortune. He subscribed 2.5 million francs to a four million franc bond issue, the rest coming from French banks. His Syndicat d’Études du Continent Africain pour le Transport des Huiles Africaines would build and operate peanut refineries in the interior of Niger that would have a captive market for peanut oil in carbohydrate-starved France and, undoubtedly, in Germany. His enterprise would compete with French peanut planters along Africa’s west coast and, given its lower delivery costs, probably put them out of business.

A few weeks after his release from internment, Bedaux had everything in place for his expedition to map out the pipeline route. Although Friedrich von Ledebur had declined to join the survey, there was no shortage of volunteers for the desert and jungle adventure. Bedaux prepared to leave for Algiers in late October with the blessings of his friends in the Nazi administration. On 23 October, Dr Franz Medicus wrote to him, ‘When I put myself in your situation today, there can be but one thought in your mind: the welfare of your Fern during your absence. Go in perfect tranquility! Only look ahead of you, concentrate your attention on your great mission. Soldiers cannot fight with trouble behind them … We who are staying behind form a ring of steel around Fern.’ Four days later, Bedaux left Fern at Candé and flew to Marseilles, where he changed planes. Bedaux landed at Algiers’ Maison Blanche airfield on the same day, 27 October. A torrid desert wind drove sand into the eyes of his son, Charles Emile, and a dozen assistants waiting to welcome his father to Algeria. They stayed at Algiers’ most fashionable hotel, the art deco Aletti beside the port. One of the first people Bedaux sought out was Robert Murphy, US Embassy counsellor in France and President Roosevelt’s special representative in North Africa. Murphy had recently returned from Washington, where FDR assigned him to General Eisenhower’s staff as political officer for Operation Torch, the impending Anglo-American invasion of French North Africa. It was unusual for State Department personnel to serve on an American military staff, but Roosevelt wanted to afford General Eisenhower the counsel of a diplomat who knew the politics of French Africa. Murphy’s transfer from the State Department to the military remained confidential, even to his colleagues. If the posting of FDR’s chief North Africa specialist to the Supreme Allied Commander’s staff became known, Germany would draw the obvious conclusion that the United States planned to invade, not continental Europe, but French Africa. On 15 September, Roosevelt sent Murphy from Washington, disguised in a US army uniform as ‘Lieutenant-Colonel McGowan’, for a secret rendezvous in Great Britain with Eisenhower.

When Murphy’s plane landed at Prestwick, Scotland, on 16 September, his cover was almost blown. In the air terminal, a familiar voice called out, ‘Why, Bob! What are you doing here?’ Donald Coster, the former ambulance driver who escaped from France in 1940 thanks to Sumner Jackson, was one of Murphy’s vice-consuls supervising American aid deliveries in Morocco while sending intelligence to the Office for Strategic Services (OSS). Murphy did not get the chance to ask Coster why he was not in North Africa, where he would soon be needed: ‘The bewildered man suddenly found himself being rushed off under arrest, and he was kept incommunicado … Coster’s innocent error was that he almost betrayed my presence in England, which was supposed to be top secret.’ For the next day and night without interruption, Murphy conferred with Eisenhower’s staff of American and British officers at the general’s country retreat, Telegraph Cottage, near London at Kingston-upon-Thames.

The question confronting General Eisenhower was: would the French army of 125,000 regular soldiers and 200,000 reservists in Africa resist an Anglo-American landing along a 1,200 mile front from Tunis to Casablanca? If they did, it would mean death for thousands of Americans in their first big engagement of the European war. If they cooperated, the divisions would be intact to take on Rommel’s Afrikakorps in Libya from the west while the British attacked from Egypt. Murphy, who spent most of the previous year in North Africa gathering intelligence with the assistance of his twelve ‘vice-consuls’, knew which French officers and civilian officials were pro-Allied. Persuading the rest not to resist an invasion of the French Empire would be a delicate and crucial exercise. To Murphy’s surprise, Ike’s staff knew almost nothing about North Africa. The general asked whether his soldiers would need warm underwear, and Murphy explained that the Atlas Mountains froze in winter. Politics were more complicated than logistics: ‘I explained how seriously French officers took their oath of fidelity to Marshal Pétain and how they feared that Americans would underestimate the strength needed to establish themselves in Africa. I explained that these factors indicated we might encounter French resistance in several places.’ The military planners, American and British, ‘were unanimous in their insistence that surprise was of the essence’. That meant Murphy could not tell his allies in North Africa the date of the proposed invasion, which would limit their ability to help.

Murphy’s return to Algiers on 16 October began a period of meticulous planning for an invasion whose date he dared not reveal. The Allies promised to drop arms for Resistance units to use if the French Army opposed the landings. Murphy established clandestine communications to Eisenhower’s temporary headquarters in Gibraltar from hidden radio transmitters. Contacts were being made with prospective French leaders, especially General Henri Honoré Giraud. In April 1942, Giraud had escaped from a German prison, as he had done in the First World War, and gone underground in the Vichy zone under Pétain’s protection. Murphy thought this national hero might be more acceptable to French officers in North Africa than General de Gaulle, whom many regarded as a traitor for rejecting the Armistice of 1940. Murphy was also courting Admiral Darlan, the anti-British commander of Vichy’s army and navy, who had come to Algiers to see his son. Alain Darlan, stationed there in the army, had just contracted poliomyelitis. President Roosevelt, whose own polio made him sympathetic, offered young Darlan medical care at Warm Springs, Georgia. Murphy believed the gesture would make the admiral amenable to the American cause.

Murphy, despite working round the clock for the invasion, found time for several meetings with Charles Bedaux. The first was on Murphy’s forty-eighth birthday, 28 October, the day after Bedaux’s arrival. Murphy’s three-page, single-space cable of 30 October to the secretary of state made clear that Bedaux was surprisingly candid about his plans. Bedaux described ‘the harsh treatment of the male internees in the early days at the camp in Compiègne’. He claimed to have asked the Germans to transfer the Americans to more comfortable dormitories at University City in Paris, where American volunteer ambulance drivers had stayed in 1940. Nothing came of his suggestion, but Bedaux was demonstrating that he had tried to help his countrymen under occupation. How had Bedaux himself been permitted to leave the camp? Murphy wrote, ‘Mr. Bedaux’s release, he states, was granted on the basis that he is charged by the French Government to perform a mission in French Africa and it was in that connection that he called upon me in Algiers. He said that he convinced General [Karl Heinrich] von Stülpnagel, in command of the German forces in occupied France, of the necessity of permitting France to build a strong French Africa.’

German support for the scheme included the allocation of 55,000 tons of steel at a time when the Wehrmacht was short of metal to manufacture weapons. Germany lent Bedaux 240 workers, who had been constructing the Trans-Saharan Railway. Most of them were prisoners of war or anti-Franco Spaniards and effectively slave labour. The Trans-Saharan Railway, Bedaux told Murphy, ‘had been definitely abandoned because of the enormous expense involved and the current lack of material and equipment’. The pipeline project was more important and would have a greater economic impact. Murphy’s memo continued, ‘According to this plan, the culture of peanuts in French West Africa is to be entirely reorganized and the center of the industry transferred from Dakar to Ouagadougou in the Ivory Coast, and the vast and fertile area in the bend of the Niger river, including parts of the Ivory Coast, French Soudan [sic] and the Niger colony, are to be exploited on a vast scale.’

Robert Murphy did not tell Bedaux anything about the impending invasion or that one of his ‘Group of Five’ allied agents was Jacques Lemaigre-Dubreuil. The French industrialist was Murphy’s link to General Giraud, and he carried messages back and forth across the Mediterranean between the two men. He was called alternately by Time magazine ‘a leading member of France’s financial aristocracy’ and ‘sleek Jacques Lemaigre-Dubreuil, big time oilman, banker and part owner of the prewar pro-Fascist Paris Jour’. He had married Simone Lesieur, whose family owned the peanut oil company Huiles Lesieur. Through her inheritance, her husband was a peanut oil magnate with refineries on the West African coast. Bedaux’s pipeline would move the peanut oil industry inland, sending the oil more quickly and cheaply than Lesieur could from Dakar. Murphy saw Bedaux and Lemaigre-Dubreuil frequently in early November, but he did not indicate in his memoirs or his cables to Washington whether he told either about the other. Nor did he warn Bedaux that his dealings with the Nazis might be illegal.

Bedaux, in a display of innocence or boasting, provided Murphy with photostats of his German-issued Ausweis of 1 October 1942, a letter from Fernand de Brinon supporting the pipeline and his cadre de mission from Laval. Murphy forwarded all three to the State Department. A few days after this interview, Bedaux invited Murphy and American Consul General Felix Cole to the Hôtel Aletti for lunch with his engineers and project managers. Among those who discussed the pipeline with the diplomats were Fernand de Brinon’s Jewish stepson, Pierre-Jérôme Ullmann, Charles Emile Bedaux, purser Georges Rimailho, a former French African military governor named Colonel Pivain and Albert Giran, until recently an official of the Trans-Saharan Railway. They explained that the survey was divided into two groups: one from Marrakesh to the River Niger along the proposed pipeline route, the other into the Sahara to study the best means of conveying water to the men who would build the line. Murphy did not, in any of his correspondence to the State Department, indicate that he attempted to dissuade Bedaux from the endeavour.

Bedaux had the impression that French and American officials supported him. ‘Here opinions are divided as to our real purpose,’ Bedaux wrote to Fern, who was waiting for him at Candé, ‘but it seems to become clear that a pipeline is so logical to wipe out the Sahara as an obstacle that Algiers should now commit suicide for not having thought of it forty years earlier–it takes time for all babies to learn to walk.’ He also cabled his New York secretary, Isabella Waite, ‘I am on the right side. Doing good work. Why isn’t Ledebur here?’ Although his son was with him, he and the boy he had hardly known as a child were still not close. Frederic Ledebur remained the son he wished he had, and he wanted him on his greatest adventure.

Murphy saw Bedaux again on 5 November. Bedaux passed along a message from the French director of Port Etienne in Mauretania that he would welcome the arrival of the American fleet in West Africa. He also gave him marine charts of the coast around Port Etienne, which could be of use to American ships. If Vichy and the Germans had known Bedaux provided Murphy with this intelligence, they could legitimately have accused him of spying for the United States.

In France, Gaston awaited news of his brother: ‘The last word we received from him was a telegram that protested against the late supply of certain deliveries.’ Bedaux, with his son and his engineers, finalized the plans in his suite at the Hôtel Aletti. They set the start date of their Saharan expedition for 15 November.

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