Military history

3. BEACHHEAD

A Sword in Algiers

EISENHOWER’S uncertainty over the progress of Operation TORCH was shared by every soldier in the Algerian and Moroccan beachheads. No man knew anything irrefutably except what he had witnessed. Sailors at sea could see nothing except gun flashes ashore. Soldiers ashore remained ignorant of what was beyond the next djebel. Commanders received fragmentary reports that proved to be incomplete, or contradictory, or wrong. This was war, “our condition and our history, the place we had to live in,” as one correspondent wrote, but to many it seemed like a street brawl with artillery. For neophyte troops, this first combat experience was revealing: war was fought by ignorant armies on a darkling plain.

The fighting between Anglo-American invaders and Vichy French defenders would last just over three days; sometimes it was a matter of halfhearted potshots, but there were pitched firefights on a dozen battlefields across two countries. This little war between ancient friends—many Americans still could not believe they were fighting the French—was complicated by concomitant diplomatic maneuvers and the first attacks from Axis forces. All this happened more or less simultaneously, from Sunday morning through Tuesday night—November 8 to 10, 1942—but for narrative simplicity the action can unfold counterclockwise around the northwest rim of Africa, beginning in Algiers and ending in Morocco.

East of the Algerian capital, a battalion from the U.S. 39th Infantry had appeared at the gates of the Maison Blanche airfield just after dawn on November 8. French soldiers fired a few wild shots for honor’s sake and then surrendered. At ten A.M. the first Hurricane fighters, launched hours earlier from Gibraltar with no guarantee of a place to land in Africa, touched down on the runway.

From Castiglione on the western edge of the beachhead, where industrious Algerians were stripping abandoned landing craft of their compasses and propellers, British troops captured another airfield at Blida and looped into Algiers from the south. One impatient commander seized half a dozen hostages—whom he described as “all very friendly and matey”—then drove to the docks, put a pistol to the head of the concierge, and hoisted a British ensign above a French command post. “Cheers rent the welkin,” he reported.

Lieutenant Colonel Edward J. Doyle, commander of the 1st Battalion of the 168th Infantry, also grew impatient with his unit’s dawdling progress against French snipers in the western suburb of Lambiridi—the same gunmen who had clipped Robert Moore’s helmet earlier that morning. Ignoring orders to hold in place, Doyle flanked the skirmishers with two dozen men and sprinted through Algiers. Soon he was rattling the gates of the governor-general’s Summer Palace. A watchman refused to admit him. “The governor,” the Frenchman advised, “is at the beach.” American troops responded by shooting out the tires of a well-heeled gentleman leaving the German consulate across the street. The driver’s rage—good tires were particularly dear—was interrupted by the crack of a sniper’s rifle. Doyle pitched to the pavement, mortally wounded by a bullet below his left shoulder blade. After Colonel Marshall in Operation RESERVIST, he was the second American battalion commander to die that morning.

Luftwaffe pilots flying from Italy on Sunday afternoon made their first appearance off Cap Matifou, where a covey of transport ships lay at anchor. An enemy Ju-88 dodged Allied flak and launched two torpedoes from an altitude of fifty feet. One missed. The second caught U.S.S. Leedstown on the starboard flank, carrying away her rudder. Dead in the water and listing with 500 men still aboard, the ship was easy prey. Near misses by dive-bombers opened her seams; then two more torpedoes amidships caused her to quickly settle by the head. Men leaped overboard, only to be sucked back into the ship through the torpedo holes; they scrambled topside and leaped again. Castaways on rafts paddled toward shore, singing with lusty abandon until they saw the heavy surf at Aïn Taya. The locals stopped their looting long enough to cut tall reeds, with which they pulled capsized survivors from the foaming water. Led to an abandoned theater, the shivering men were bedded in straw and revived with brandy. Leedstown sank in twenty fathoms.

Pleasing as such retaliatory Axis raids may have been, Admiral Darlan recognized with the discernment of a professional survivor that the jig was nearly up. The Vichy commander-in-chief had only 7,000 badly armed troops in Algiers; both major airfields had been captured, his fleet was bottled up by British men-of-war, and the city was surrounded by 30,000 soldiers. At three P.M. on Sunday, Darlan reappeared at the Villa des Oliviers, where Robert Murphy and Kenneth Pendar had been spared execution through the timely clemency of General Juin. The admiral found the American diplomats at lunch, watching the port warehouses burn and dive-bombers pirouette over Algiers Bay. Darlan announced that he was ready to parley. Would M. Murphy find the American commander, who was said to be on the beach ten miles west of Algiers?

In Juin’s limousine with a white flag and the French tricolor flapping from the fender, the diplomats threaded their way through straggling columns of American soldiers west of Algiers. At Beach Beer White, they discovered Major General Charles W. Ryder, commander of the 34th Infantry Division, sitting on a large rock. A fellow Kansan and West Point classmate of Eisenhower’s, Ryder—Doc, to his friends—was a tall, angular infantryman, highly decorated in the Great War. Asked if he would discuss terms with the French, he replied evenly, “I will go anywhere to talk to anyone who wishes to surrender Algiers to me.” He then went nowhere. Sitting his rock, fussing about the need for a fresh uniform, he composed a one-paragraph report to Gibraltar with the speed of a man dictating to a stonecutter. “You will have to forgive me,” he told Murphy. “I haven’t slept in a week.” Murphy stopped pacing, took the general by the arm, and bundled him into the limousine.

A bugler perched on the running board blew “Cease Fire” as they careered through Lambiridi to the Avenue Maréchal Joffre. Outside Fort l’Empereur, headquarters of the Vichy military, Juin’s chief of staff stood at rigid attention in the street. Behind him were spaced six soldiers in a V formation. “I don’t like blood,” Murphy confided to Ryder as they climbed from the limousine. With the precise gestures of a man practiced in capitulation, the French chief of staff extended his sword to Ryder, hilt first, “like a historical painting in some museum,” Pendar observed. Murmuring a few words of abdication, he wheeled smartly and marched into the fort.

Ryder and Murphy followed. They entered a cavernous hall where stuffed hunting trophies and booty from ancient battlefields hung from the wainscoting. Fifty French officers stood along the walls, glancing between the Americans and General Juin, who stood at the head of a long table swathed in green baize. Juin had exchanged his pink-striped pajamas from the previous night for the bemedaled splendor of his finest uniform. The distant mutter of small-arms fire was swallowed by the roar of bombs from Royal Navy planes attacking French targets barely a hundred yards distant. “How wonderful!” Ryder exclaimed. “This is the first time since World War One that I have been under fire.” Icy silence greeted this remark.

“Are you the senior commander?” Juin finally asked, tossing his left-handed salute.

“I am.”

“Will you assume responsibility for keeping law and order in Algiers if it is surrendered to your force?”

“Yes,” Ryder answered, “provided I may have the services of the French gendarmes acting under my orders.”

“When will you be ready to do this?”

“Immediately.”

“Would you permit French troops to retain their arms?”

Ryder hesitated for an instant. “Yes, provided the troops are assembled in their barracks.”

The deed was done. Allied units would enter the city at eight P.M. Prisoners were to be freed immediately, including survivors from Operation TERMINAL. French officers dispatched cars through every precinct of Algiers to herald the city’s surrender with a fugato of bugles.

Algiers had fallen, but not the rest of French North Africa, and there was the rub. The Americans soon learned that Darlan had formally divested himself of all power outside the city. He professed, with an infuriating shrug, to have no negotiating authority for the rest of the Vichy empire. Another meeting at Fort l’Empereur, this time with Darlan present, yielded only an agreement to move Allied ships into Algiers harbor.

At dawn on Monday, the task force flagship, H.M.S. Bulolo, steamed with imperial dignity toward the Railway Jetty, unaware that an earlier near-miss from a Luftwaffe bomb had damaged her engine room telegraphs. A routine docking order from the bridge for full steam astern went unheard. The French welcoming committee on the jetty watched with mounting alarm as the ship loomed nearer at twelve knots. Officers on the bridge debated whether Bulolo’s masts would more likely shear off forward or backward upon impact. Shrieking bystanders scattered; the captain yelled “Everyone lie down!” to his crew; and the great bow heaved up onto a fortuitous mudbank, demolishing the seawall and nicking a waterfront house before settling back into the harbor, intact. Applauding spectators recovered their wits and agreed that the Royal Navy knew how to make an entrance.

So, too, did General Giraud. On Monday morning, November 9, he left Gibraltar for Algiers in a French plane with intentions of elbowing Darlan aside and establishing himself as the new Allied satrap in North Africa. As Eisenhower had shrewdly anticipated, Giraud had come around after sensing TORCH’s early success; with histrionic sighs he agreed to serve as commander of the French military in North Africa and chief civil administrator there. Eisenhower packed him off, then publicly proclaimed that “his presence there will bring about a cessation of scattered resistance.” (To Marshall he privately confessed, “I find myself getting absolutely furious with these stupid Frogs.”)

The authorities in Vichy greeted Eisenhower’s proclamation by denouncing the French general as “a rebel chief and a felon.” Giraud landed at Blida airfield to be met not by the honor guard and whooping throng he had envisioned, but by a few furtive supporters who warned of assassins. Worse yet, his luggage and uniform had gone missing. Giraud could hardly stage a proper coup in rumpled gabardine. Despondent and out of costume, he climbed into a borrowed car and headed for the serpentine alleys of Algiers’s Ruisseau quarter, where a sympathetic family had offered sanctuary.

Three hours later, Mark Clark arrived by B-17 at Maison Blanche airfield with orders from Eisenhower to help Giraud take command of French forces and secure a general armistice. Instead, he found his putative viceroy in hiding, Admiral Darlan in firm command of Vichy loyalties, and fighting continuing everywhere except Algiers proper. “This,” Clark told Murphy, “really messes things up!”

In his retinue, Clark had included a former Rin Tin Tin screen writer and 20th Century–Fox executive named Darryl F. Zanuck; now a Signal Corps colonel, Zanuck emerged from the plane with a 16mm movie camera and ten rolls of film with which to document Clark’s triumphant entry into Algiers. The cinematic moment was disrupted, however, by the appearance of a dozen Luftwaffe raiders. As Spitfires and Junkerses tangled overhead, gabbling civilians thronged the streets to watch the dogfights. Clark and his men crammed into two British half-tracks and clanked through the city. Every wall, they noticed, seemed plastered with large posters of Marshal Pétain. The invasion of North Africa was barely twenty-four hours old but already it had descended into French farce.

The Hôtel St. Georges was a rambling, bone-white hostel on Rue Michelet, the most fashionable avenue in Algiers’s most fashionable neighborhood. Long favored for its gorgeous sea vistas by wealthy spinsters touring the Mediterranean, the St. Georges now served as headquarters for the French navy. Marines had tracked the lobby’s intricate mosaic floor with mud. It was here that the Americans agreed to meet Darlan and his lieutenants early Tuesday morning, November 10.

Clark found General Ryder exhausted from hours of fruitless dickering. “I’ve stalled them about as long as I can,” Ryder said. A rifle company had been posted among the palm trees outside with orders to “shoot their butts off” if the French made trouble. Murphy led Clark through the hotel foyer to a small, stuffy room with blue Moorish tile and a view of the sun-dappled Mediterranean. Five French admirals and four generals awaited them. Darlan wore elevated heels and a black, double-breasted admiral’s tunic that accentuated his pasty complexion. He greeted the Americans cordially, but the French refused to shake hands with the solitary British officer in Clark’s delegation. Clark folded himself into a chair at the head of the table with Darlan on his left, Juin on his right, and Murphy translating.

“We have work to do to meet the common enemy,” Clark said.

“All my associates and I feel hostilities are fruitless,” Darlan replied. But beyond surrendering Algiers, he had no authority to sign an armistice. “I can simply obey the orders of Pétain.”

“The problem is bigger than that,” Clark insisted. He gestured vaguely toward Tunisia. “Will the French troops east of Algiers resist as we pass through to meet the common enemy?”

Darlan’s watery blue eyes avoided Clark’s stare. “I have asked Vichy to give me an answer to your terms as soon as possible.”

Clark thumped the table with his fist. “It will be necessary to retain you in protective custody. I hope you understand. We must move east. I will go to General Giraud. He will sign the terms and issue the necessary orders.”

Darlan mopped his pate, and the faintest trace of a smile crossed his lips. “I am not certain the troops will obey.”

“If you think Pétain will agree with you that hostilies must cease, why can’t you issue that order now?”

“It would result,” Darlan said slowly, “in the immediate occupation of southern France by the Germans.”

Clark’s fist again crashed onto the table. “What you are doing now means the killing of more French and Americans. This is the time when we must lean on our inclinations and not on our orders. Here is an opportunity for all Frenchmen to rally and win the war. Here is your last chance.”

“That is your decision,” Darlan said.

“Tell him,” Clark said to Murphy, “that Pétain is nothing in our young lives.” He pushed back his chair to leave, but Juin held up his hand. “Give us five minutes.”

As the Allied delegates filed from the room, Darlan murmured to Murphy, “Would you mind suggesting to Major General Clark that I am a five-star admiral? He should stop talking to me like a lieutenant junior grade.”

The Americans retreated to a remote corridor across the foyer. The sound of raised French voices drifted from the closed door. Clark paced, muttering about “YBSOBs,” the private acronym he and Eisenhower had invented for “yellow-bellied sons of bitches.” Clark’s tacit threat to declare martial law in North Africa horrified Murphy. He could hardly imagine administering railroads, mail, water supply, and other civil functions across a million square miles with nearly 20 million people, few of whom shared a language with any American. If the Allies were to lunge toward Tunisia without fear of a stab in the back, they needed French help.

The door swung open. Darlan’s pudgy confidant and his host in Algiers, Vice Admiral Raymond Fenard, smiled and gestured. As Clark and the others took their seats, Darlan turned to Murphy and said, “J’accepte.”

He laid a draft order before Clark announcing to all French troops that further battle was futile. A proposed message to Pétain suggested that continued fighting would likely cost France its African possessions. Darlan took up a pen and scratched an order “in the name of the Marshal” ordering all land, sea, and air forces in North Africa to cease fire, return to their bases, and observe a strict neutrality. Darlan again mopped his head. “This will stand,” Clark declared.

He immediately cabled word of the agreement to Gibraltar. “I deemed it of the utmost importance,” he told Eisenhower, “to do anything to secure an order which would be obeyed to cease hostilities.” Giraud resurfaced in his kepi, jodhpurs, gold braid, and gleaming cavalry boots. “He appeared to have emerged directly from the barber’s shop,” journalist Alan Moorehead later wrote. “His small, bird-like head was beautifully groomed.” With his misplaced uniform restored and his pride swallowed, Giraud announced that for the greater glory of France he would serve under Darlan in fighting the Germans.

Yet no sooner was the deal made than it collapsed. Within hours, news came from Vichy that Marshal Pétain had sacked Darlan as his military commander and repudiated any agreement with the Americans rather than risk the German occupation of Vichy France and seizure of the large Vichy fleet anchored at Toulon. “I issued the order to defend North Africa,” Pétain decreed. More diminished than ever, Darlan moped around Admiral Fenard’s villa like a disinherited heir. “I am lost,” he said. “I can only give myself up.”

At three P.M. on Tuesday afternoon Clark and Murphy arrived at the villa, alarmed by reports that their new protégé intended to renege on the armistice he had signed six hours earlier.

“Pétain is the mouthpiece of Hitler,” Clark insisted.

Darlan shrugged. “There is nothing I can do but revoke the order which I signed this morning.”

“Damned if you do!” Clark drew himself to his full, imposing height. “You are now a prisoner.”

“Then I must be taken prisoner.”

Furious, Clark ordered two infantry platoons to throw a cordon around Fenard’s compound. An American colonel, Benjamin A. Dickson, shoved past Darlan’s aides to confront him directly. “Mon Admiral, by order of the supreme commander you are hereby under arrest in these quarters. Guards have been posted with orders to shoot if you attempt to escape.”

Dickson returned to the front gate. “Our prisoner in that house is Admiral Darlan,” he told the captain of the guard. “He is a short, bald-headed, pink-faced, needle-nosed, sharp-chinned little weasel. If he tries to get away in uniform or civilian clothes, he is to be shot.”

At Gibraltar, Eisenhower thumbed through the dispatches from Africa and tried to make sense of the front. “War brings about strange, sometimes ridiculous situations,” he had written in another longhand memo to himself on Monday afternoon. With each passing hour this war seemed to get stranger and more ridiculous. In a scribbled note he titled “Inconsequential thoughts of a commander during one of the interminable waiting periods,” Eisenhower added, “I’m anxiously waiting word of: west coast operations. Oran operations. Giraud’s movements and intentions. Darlan’s proposals. Movements of Italian air. Intentions of Spain.”

Darlan appeared to have capitulated twice and reneged twice under countervailing pressure from Vichy and Clark. Giraud’s influence in North Africa seemed to be nil. Eisenhower had greeted one of Clark’s cables by wailing, “Jeee-sus Ch-e-rist! What I need around here is a damned good assassin.” He wondered whether bribery would help. Should the Allies, he asked Clark, consider depositing a large sum “in a neutral country such as Switzerland?”

As the seat of French authority in North Africa, Algiers was crucial to the Allied cause and the staging ground for the push toward Tunisia. British troops still waited offshore to begin that eastward drive once Clark was certain of French neutrality if not collaboration. Morocco also was vital as the conduit for supplies and reinforcements from the United States. Yet Eisenhower still had heard virtually nothing from Hewitt and Patton.

But it was Oran that had preoccupied the commander-in-chief in a message to Marshall late on Monday. The airfields in western Algeria were critical to building up Allied power, and so were the port at Oran and the nearby naval base at Mers el-Kébir. “My biggest operational difficulty at the moment is the slowness in straightening out the Oran region,” Eisenhower wrote. “I must get it soon.”

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