Military history

“They Shot the Little Son of a Bitch”

ALGIERS on Christmas Eve was festive if not quite spiritual. The white houses spilling down the hills gleamed beneath a mild winter sun. Palm fronds stirred in the sea breeze. French mothers bustled from shop to shop in search of toys and sweets for their children. The price of Algerian champagne—Mousse d’Islam—doubled during the morning. Outside the city, soldiers decorated scrawny evergreens with grenades, mess kits, and ammunition bandoliers. Security had relaxed to the point that a sentry’s challenge was answered not with the daily countersign but rather with “It’s us, you daft bugger!” Nipping from hidden casks of wine, troops washed their uniforms in gasoline and gave one another haircuts in preparation for midnight chapel services. A signalman in the 1st Division picked up a BBC broadcast of Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas” men from the Fighting First huddled around the radio and wept. Those of a more cynical persuasion, tired of looking at veiled women, composed a parody: “I’m Dreaming of a White Mistress.”

Morale officers in Algiers and Oran had worked hard to keep thousands of soldiers diverted after the initial weeks of an occupation characterized by “extremely bad discipline and long lines of soldiers at the houses of ill-fame.” Activities now ranged from French-language classes to chaperoned mixers. (“I have seen cases where a Jewess or a girl of easy virtue was present, and the chaperones took all the girls home,” an officer reported with evident approval.) Engineers emptied local swimming pools and converted them to basketball courts. Softball and volleyball leagues were organized—more than 20,000 softballs and 3,000 basketballs would be requisitioned for the war theater in the next ten months—although, owing to occasional sniping by disaffected Algerians, some games were said to be played “at high tension.” Moviegoers in Algiers could see Yankee Doodle Dandy or Mutiny on the Bounty, and the Oran opera house was transformed into an American service club. The first variety show performance, scheduled for Christmas Eve, featured an act billed as the Robert Taileur Troupe and His Spanish Twins. None of the troupers spoke English, so a bilingual captain had agreed to stand on stage and translate the punch lines.

Alas, there would be no troupe, no Spanish Twins, no delayed guffaws at ribald jokes. Nor would there be midnight mass, brothel visits, or mixers with girls of virtue impeccable or otherwise. Admiral Darlan’s hour had come round.

The Little Fellow, as Clark and Murphy called him, had become littler in Allied eyes. Not only was Darlan an international embarrassment, he had failed to lure the now-scuttled Toulon fleet into the Anglo-American camp. Many of his acts as high commissioner caused irritation if not outrage, including his demand for 200 Coldstream and Grenadier Guards to serve as an honor company for the annual celebration of Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz. Graffiti scrawled on the walls of Algiers demanded, “Death to the traitor Darlan!” His recent attempt to win over Allied correspondents with a champagne reception only intensified their vilification.

Darlan seemed weary of it all. “His small blue eyes looked incredibly sad,” reporter John MacVane noted. At a luncheon for Allied officers on December 23, the admiral voiced interest in joining his son, who had nearly died of polio and was recuperating, at Roosevelt’s invitation, in Warm Springs, Georgia. “I would like to turn this thing over to General Giraud,” Darlan told Clark. “He likes it here and I don’t.” Clark pulled Murphy aside and said, “You know, the Little Fellow may do it.” Murphy nodded. “Yes, he might.” After lunch Darlan ushered Murphy into his office and confided, “There are four plots in existence to assassinate me.”

One would suffice. At 2:30 P.M. on the twenty-fourth, the bells in the English chapel on Rue Michelet struck the half hour as a tall young man with a shock of dark hair stepped from a Peugeot sedan. Dressed in black and wearing a brown overcoat, he strolled to the south gate of the whitewashed Summer Palace, where he signed the registry under the name Morand. Asking to see Admiral Darlan on a personal matter, he was directed to a small anteroom in a Moorish arcade where the high commissioner kept his office. He lit a cigarette and waited on a threadbare couch.

Fernand Bonnier de la Chapelle was the son of a French journalist father and an Italian mother. An antifascist monarchist, he had returned to his native Algiers from metropolitan France after the German invasion of 1940 and had fallen in with a royalist cabal keen to transform the pretender to the French throne, the exiled count of Paris, into Henri VIII. Precisely how the plot evolved, or why an attack on Darlan was expected to advance the cause of a French monarchy, would never be known. But shortly after threeP.M. Bonnier heard the crunch of tires on the gravel drive in the garden outside. From his coat he pulled a Rubis 7.65mm revolver, which he had test-fired that morning at a nearby golf course after receiving absolution for his sins from a priest involved in the conspiracy.

Returning from lunch, Darlan walked slowly down the narrow corridor. He had spent another difficult morning with Murphy, who had pressed him on the prickly issues of political prisoners and restoring the rights of Algerian Jews. The spa in Warm Springs sounded ever more inviting.

As he opened the door to his study, the admiral heard the snick of a cocking pistol behind him. He whirled. Bonnier fired twice at point-blank range into his victim’s face and abdomen. Darlan collapsed across the threshhold, eyes wide and unblinking, blood streaming from his mouth. An aide rushed in to seize the assassin by the throat, only to take a bullet in the thigh for his trouble. Bonnier bolted toward a window to escape through the palace grounds, but a spahi cavalryman dragged him back into the room. Another clubbed him with a chair, knocking away the pistol.

Half a mile away, at the Hôtel St. Georges, Clark was clearing his office desk before leaving for Christmas Eve dinner when he heard running feet in the hallway. The door flew open and Murphy burst into the office. “They shot the little son of a bitch!” he exclaimed. “He’s on his way to the hospital.”

A voluble mob of Frenchmen had already gathered in the waiting room when Clark and Murphy arrived at Maillot Hospital. Pushing through the crowd and into the surgical suite, the Americans found that the admiral had just been pronounced dead on the operating table. “The Little Fellow,” Clark later said, “looked calm and quiet.”

Clark handled bloodshed with his usual brisk efficiency. Affecting a turn-out-the-guard scowl, he doubled the pickets at the St. Georges and ordered all officers to arm themselves. Machine-gun posts were set up in the hotel gardens and outside other important Allied buildings. “The whole headquarters is in an uproar,” one officer reported. Trucks jammed with armed soldiers carrying gas masks rumbled back and forth through the streets. Holy Night festivities were canceled, and in camps across Algeria troops were ordered to stand to in the mud with their weapons in the event of a “native uprising.”

While Clark considered that Darlan’s death was “like the lancing of a troublesome boil,” he moved quickly to score propaganda points by implying Axis complicity in the murder. An official AFHQ statement declared, “Complete order reigns in Algiers notwithstanding general indignation caused by the event.” The suggestion that the citizenry might riot in pique at Darlan’s demise struck many as ludicrous. One correspondent observed that he had “never seen happier faces in Algiers.”

Eisenhower had insisted that no Signal Corps officers accompany him eastward on his inspection tour and for hours after the shooting he remained beyond reach at the V Corps command post in Souk el Khemis, 400 miles away. The first frantic radio message went out from Algiers at four P.M., but a courier failed to find the commander-in-chief. A phone call from AFHQ to First Army headquarters at five P.M. obliquely reported that the “most serious thing has happened” less than an hour later, another message disclosed that Darlan had met with an accident and that the AFHQ staff was “very anxious to get in touch with C-in-C who is in forward area. Get him to ring General Clark immediately.” None of these dispatches reached Eisenhower in timely fashion.

A long afternoon of meetings stretched into a long evening. General Evelegh’s message at 7:15 P.M. suggesting that Longstop Hill would fall by Christmas morning was the first good news Eisenhower had heard all day. At eleven P.M. he was just about to sit down with Anderson and Juin for a late Christmas Eve supper when a radio officer stumbled in with a message from Clark: “Have just returned from hospital. Darlan is dead.”

The Cadillac pulled across the muddy barnyard to the farmhouse. Someone would erase the tracks before dawn. Just forty miles south, Eisenhower’s boyhood hero, Hannibal, had been smashed at Zama by Scipio Africanus to close the Second Punic War in 202B.C. He hoped to visit the site someday, to understand by walking the ground what had gone wrong for the Carthaginians. But not now. The trip back to Algiers would take thirty hours. Always a more subtle political thinker than Clark, Eisenhower expected that the assassination would carry unforeseen consequences. Darlan’s death ended one problem, he mused aloud in the back of the car, but no doubt created many more.

General Evelegh’s prediction proved all too accurate. Longstop Hill did fall on Christmas morning.

Badly reduced, with his main force driven into a vulnerable swale southeast of Djebel el Rhar, Colonel Lang chose to gamble. A small detachment would pin down the Anglo-Americans with frontal fire while a tank company looped around the hill to the north and grenadiers, led by Lang personally, swung along the south face above the Halt. The counterattack was set for first light on Friday, the twenty-fifth.

More than a hundred Algerian tirailleurs with horse-drawn caissons and not a syllable of English among them had reinforced the 18th Infantry’s Company B during the night. With grunts and gestures, an American lieutenant positioned the company along the col on Longstop’s northwest slope. For reasons unclear, artillery observers had left their posts on Longstop during the night and returned to the hamlet at Chassart Teffaha. An appalled officer ordered them back on the hill as the eastern sky lightened with Christmas dawn.

Too late. At seven A.M. the German attack opened, with shelling so intense an American officer described being simply “blasted all around.” Colored signal rockets soared over Djebel el Rhar to launch the flank assaults. Ten panzers negotiated the mud north of the hill and slammed into the French. Lacking antitank weapons, the tirailleurs broke. From 800 yards, panzer volleys enfiladed the left flank of the American line on Djebel el Ahmera. Without artillery, the Yank reply was a paltry spatter of light mortar and rifle fire, along with a few grenades tossed more in defiance than as a military response. Unable to reach Colonel York at the battalion command post, the B Company commander announced darkly: “We will fight to the last man.” His executive officer, Lieutenant Edward McGregor, found himself thinking obsessively of the Little Big Horn.

The right flank also crumpled under an assault from the Halt by Lang and his grenadiers. Enemy fire began falling in the rear, suggesting encirclement from both wings. American and British officers would each claim to have been left in the lurch by the unannounced withdrawal of their allies along various Longstop knobs. But without doubt, the Coldstreams holding forward positions at the crest of Djebel el Ahmera now faced annihilation.

At nine A.M., after learning that the Germans had once again captured Point 290, General Allfrey authorized Evelegh to abandon Longstop. Runners darted forward with orders to retreat. Platoons leapfrogged back to Chassart Teffaha for the rest of the morning, sowing mines to discourage German pursuit. The ammunition and medical supplies so laboriously hauled forward were now loaded on carts and carriers for the return to Medjez-el-Bab.

Rain fell again as the survivors trudged back, at the last pitch of exhaustion. As Christmas night descended, officers walked ahead of the jeeps and trucks waving white handkerchiefs for drivers to follow; some were so weary they veered off the road every few hundred yards anyway. Men sheltered in Chassart or Medjez and “clung together like sick kittens on a hot brick,” in the phrase of the infantryman-turned-cartoonist Bill Mauldin. Christmas dinner consisted of British compo, supplemented with “a few scraggy chickens boiled in the muddy water of the Medjerda.”

Word soon circulated of who was missing and who was known to be dead. As always after a fight, infantrymen checked to see if their closest buddies had survived before tabulating the battle’s net worth. British casualties totaled 178 men; officers had been hit especially hard, and of a dozen Coldstream platoon sergeants on Longstop, one still stood. American losses were precisely twice as heavy: 9 officers and 347 enlisted men killed, wounded, or missing. With 40 percent of the 1st Battalion gone, the 18th Infantry levied replacements, picking random names from a regimental roster to prevent commanders from simply dumping their shirkers and misfits. Platoons voted on whether to keep Christmas packages addressed to the dead, or send them home unopened.

Longstop belonged to the Germans, who renamed it Weihnachtshügel, Christmas Hill. There was much celebrating in the handsome house on the corner of Place de Pasteur in Tunis, where Arnim lived, with toasts of Tunisian red wine hoisted in honor of Lang’sKämpfer; sentries even set up a small Christmas tree, decorated with garlands and white candles. The revels came to a rude end at 10:30 P.M. on the twenty-sixth, when an American bomber, damaged by flak and losing altitude, jettisoned its 4,000-pound bomb before crashing on the western fringe of Tunis. The bomb detonated in the dense Arab neighborhood along Rue el Mekhtar, demolishing every house in a 16,000-square-foot area and killing eighty-four civilians.

Of the Tommies and Yanks who had held Longstop, some held it still: six months later, skeletons in moldering battle dress were found facing east on Point 290 with their kit intact, oddly unmolested by scavengers. Such constancy from the dead offered small comfort to the living; the enemy resumed his “shelling programme,” ventilating parts of Medjez so completely that one man likened the town to “a cheese-grater.” Upon hearing the bitter news about the destruction of his battalion on Longstop, Terry Allen reduced four days of fighting to four words: “Objective lost, mission unaccomplished.”

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