Military history

“This Is the Hand of God”

FOR a man who had just lost a critical battle and spent thirty hours in the rear seat of a car, Eisenhower was in buoyant spirits on Christmas night. Stiff and pallid after the long drive, he soon revived upon reaching AFHQ headquarters at six P.M. A quick staff meeting; a quicker, handwritten sympathy note to Madame Darlan (“You have the consolation of knowing that he died in the service of his country and that we view his passing with regret”); and then it was off to Beetle Smith’s mosaic-floored villa. Eisenhower ambled into the foyer singing in his fine deep voice:

God rest ye merry, gentlemen,

Let nothing you dismay.

With a small clique of officers, the commander-in-chief tucked into a Christmas feast of plum pudding, champagne, and roast turkey. Patton had sent from Casablanca two live birds, one of which survived the journey long enough to be stuffed, cooked, and devoured. So merry and undismayed did the gentlemen celebrate that at breakfast the next morning Harry Butcher requested only “a bowl of cold aspirin.”

The investigation by French authorities into Darlan’s murder was conducted with such brisk efficiency that a coffin was ordered for Bonnier de la Chapelle even before his trial began. A perfunctory prosecution followed by a perfunctory defense—“I have brought to justice a traitor,” Bonnier proposed—led to the foreordained sentence of death from a secret military tribunal. The defendant seemed so certain of reprieve that he discussed with police interrogators his future career in diplomacy. “They will not shoot me. I have liberated France,” he told a priest. “The bullets will be blank cartridges.” At 7:45 A.M. on Saturday, December 26, Bonnier was trussed to a stake in the courtyard of a police barracks and executed even before he finished murmuring his prayers. “He was,” Churchill later noted, “surprised to be shot.”

As his assassin was being dispatched in squalid anonymity, Darlan was about to receive a funeral worthy of a North African potentate. On Christmas Day, 8,000 people had filed through Government House in downtown Algiers, where the admiral lay in state on a catafalque blanketed in floral wreaths, and guarded by spahis and tirailleurs with bared halberds. “Not a tear was shed,” one correspondent insisted. Another witness claimed that General Giraud’s eyes moistened. Perhaps it was in gratitude: he would now succeed Darlan as high commissioner. Bereaved or otherwise, the genuflecting mourners—including the assassin’s father—paid homage at the bier, which was crowned with the admiral’s little billed cap. Then sailors in snowy white puttees hoisted the coffin into a black hearse and the cortège wove through the city to the Cathédrale St. Philippe.

As the funeral service began, at nine A.M. on Saturday, French officials packed the right side of the vast nave; on the left sat a large delegation of Allied officers who had been instructed to forgo “all sidearms and mourning badges.”

The requiem mass droned on. At one point the principal mourners were supposed to walk to the bier, make the sign of the cross, and sprinkle the coffin with a cedar sprig dipped in holy water. Ever the Kansas Protestant, Eisenhower remained in his pew. Clearly enjoying the commander-in-chief’s discomfiture at these papist rituals, his naval chief, Admiral Andrew B. Cunningham, punched him playfully in the shoulder. “Go ahead,” Cunningham whispered.

“I can’t do it.”

Cunningham gestured with a tilt of his head. “Go ahead.”

Eisenhower trudged up the aisle, declined to genuflect, then dunked the sprig and splattered “enough water to drown the man in the coffin,” as Cunningham later recounted. The commander-in-chief stomped back to his seat, glowering, while his amused lieutenants could hardly contain their mirth.

It was over except for the final review. Mourners filed from the church to stand on the cathedral steps. Pulling on his white gloves and glancing at the sky as if expecting heavy weather, Eisenhower took his place next to Giraud. Then a French navy band played the “Marseillaise” at a somber tempo; a Signal Corps movie cameraman recorded the Allied officers holding their salutes amid sidelong glances and eye-darting worthy of a Borgia wedding. Eight sailors emerged from the church with the casket on their shoulders. Zouaves marched past on the Chemin du Thelmely, followed by spahis on white chargers, a British color guard, and a company from the 34th Division. An Army officer with a clipboard noted “the following errors, which should be avoided the next time: American company failed to fix bayonets before passing in review. Also, they failed to do ‘eyes right.’ Dispersal was not properly organized.” Who the critiquing officer expected the corpse to be “the next time” was not recorded.

The procession wound down the Rue Michelet to the Summer Palace. Here, at the scene of the crime, the unlamented admiral would remain in a private chapel pending his burial in the Sailors’ Cemetery. Now the Little Fellow was carrion for every epitaph writer in Christendom. De Gaulle saw Darlan as a symptom of “the long disease of the state.” Harold Macmillan, who had just arrived in Algiers as Churchill’s political representative at AFHQ, was slightly more generous: “Once bought, he stayed bought.”

But perhaps the shrewdest assessment came from David Hunt, a British intelligence officer. “The murder fell like a stone into a small pond and the ripples were only brief,” Hunt wrote. “It was as if Darlan had never been.”

Finger-pointing occupied Allied high councils for weeks after the offensive stalled on Longstop Hill. Anglo-American ties in particular showed signs of corrosion. A charming, divided-by-a-common-language mutual incomprehension had long characterized relations between the armies, as for example in the American aphorism that “Britain is a country where somebody is for ever lovingly bringing you a cup of tea up six flights of stairs.” Or the story of the American headquarters clerk who took a phone call from a British officer with such a thick accent that the Yank asked his officemates, “Is there anyone here who understands French?” Many an Englishman was appalled at the long initial “A” common in American pronunciation of the word “Arab”—“very ugly this, but done in the best circles,” one reporter sniffed. Harold Macmillan, whose mother was from Indiana (“I am a Hoosier,” he declared with perfect Oxbridge diction upon introducing himself to Eisenhower), advised a British officer: “You will find the Americans much as the Greeks found the Romans—great big vulgar, bustling people, more vigorous than we are and also more idle, with more unspoiled virtues, but also more corrupt. We must run AFHQ as the Greeks ran the operations of the Emperor Claudius.”

Yet a harsher, toxic tone now seeped into the alliance. Britain had long benefited from American bounty, and only indebtedness breeds contempt quicker than familiarity. British Army references to the Americans as “our Italians” could be heard for the first time; a British correspondent voiced the widespread view that “the Americans were frivolous about the war—gifted amateurs.” A senior British general told a colleague that he considered the Yanks “crashing bores. Their hospitality and generosity were boundless, [but] their business efficiency and hustle, pure baloney.” For their part, the Americans coined another bromide: “The British cope, we fix.”

Longstop—the first protracted, cheek-by-jowl infantry combat shared by the cousins—intensified the enmity. A 1st Guards Brigade after-action account of the battle excoriated the 18th Infantry:

The plain facts are that the Americans did not retain possession of the key points, and did not really make a major effort to get them back…. I have nothing whatever to say against the Americans myself, except that they were unfitted and unprepared for the task they were asked to perform, which would, in fact, have been difficult for any battalion.

To Major General Terry Allen, that American Hotspur, those were fighting words. Since the capture of Oran six weeks earlier, Allen had impatiently waited in an Algerian bivouac with his 1st Division, watching from afar as the British struggled in Tunisia. He had put his affairs in order, preparing himself for whatever ordeal lay ahead.

“Please always remember that I love you more than anyone has ever loved anyone,” he wrote to his wife, Mary Fran. As if to shed the skin of a previous life, he burned various personal records, including the July 30 letter in which Marshall had warned Allen to “be on your guard” against excessive drinking. (Allen dismissed such “ridiculous allegations made against my personal habits.”) By incinerating “all that stuff,” Allen told Mary Fran, he hoped to purge all “rancor or ill-will in my mind or in my heart.” The little bonfire provided a rite of purification; only the enemy deserved his malice. As Ernie Pyle observed, “He hated Germans and Italians like vermin.”

Yet as the weeks passed he had grown incredulous, for the Big Red One remained idle while Anderson built a logistical network that could support more troops at the front. Allen and Ted Roosevelt continued to train their men hard, but garrison life suited the Fighting First no better than it did its commander. Clutching his zippered leather valise, on which he had written “Hands off! Please return” three times in blue ink, Allen swept into AFHQ headquarters in Algiers. “Is this a private war,” he was said to have demanded, his perforated cheeks hissing with indignation, “or can anybody get in?”

Frustration turned to outrage as pieces of the division were shaved off and shipped east. First the 5th Field Artillery had been sent to the British at Tébourba, where most of the battalion’s officers were promptly captured. Then a battalion from the 26th Infantry was dispatched to southern Tunisia. Allen believed that “infantry, like whiskey, loses potency when diluted” moreover, fragmenting the division undermined morale. Men did not risk their lives in battle for cause or country, Allen insisted, but to keep faith with their buddies. “A man fights to help the man next to him, just as a company fights to keep pace with its flanks,” he insisted. “Things have to be that simple.”

The last straw had been the dispatch of his 18th Infantry—one-third of the Big Red One’s infantry strength—and the subsequent mauling of the regiment’s 1st Battalion on Longstop. Grieving for his dead men and furious at the British slur against them, Allen had no intention of ignoring the charge that his troops were “unfitted and unprepared.” He ordered the division intelligence officer to investigate the 18th Infantry’s performance during Longstop. Predictably, the subsequent account painted a far different picture, of British malfeasance as well as American failings. British commanders had “completely misused” York’s battalion, the investigation concluded. Allen stuffed the report in his valise and set off for British V Corps headquarters in Tunisia.

General Allfrey read the paper over breakfast while Allen sucked on a cigarette, eyes narrowed against the smoke.

“I can’t understand the rumors that I hear from Beetle Smith and General Eisenhower of the Americans being incompetent soldiers,” Allen said when Allfrey finished. “Particularly the reports from the higher echelons of command in your army.”

The blood had drained from Allfrey’s face. “I have no apologies,” he said with a shrug. “I haven’t heard anything like this from the commander of the Guards brigade or the division commander.” He gestured with the sheaf of papers in his hand. “What are you going to do with this?”

Allen kept his gaze steady, then reached across the table, took the report from Allfrey, and tore it in half. “I hope this will be a lesson to the British high command on how to deal with the Americans,” he said. “I am not going to cause an international incident over this, but I expect that if I get any British troops under my command, I’ll give them a lot better treatment than you have given my men.” He saluted and walked out.

If not precisely gracious, the gesture was generous. Allen had averted a row and cauterized an ugly wound. But many more such flourishes would be necessary before the war approached the Allied ideal of a righteous crusade in which good men dared to trust one another.

The bottom of the year had come, and with it the nadir of Allied fortunes in Africa. The abandonment of the drive on Tunis “has been the severest disappointment I have suffered to date,” Eisenhower confessed in a cable to the combined chiefs on the twenty-sixth. His original orders from London and Washington had directed him to carry the TORCH offensive “to the east through Libya against the rear of the Axis forces in the Western Desert.” In this he had failed, and no bowl of cold aspirin would set it right.

There would be no trapping of Rommel’s rump army in Libya between Anderson’s First Army and Bernard Montgomery’s Eighth Army, now lumbering westward out of Egypt. Rather than crushing Axis forces in the jaws of a vise, the failed Allied strategy gave interior lines to the enemy and all but guaranteed that four armies—Anderson and Montgomery, Arnim and Rommel—would slug it out in a campaign of attrition not unlike that on the Western Front a quarter century before.

An enormous siege loomed, and perspicacious strategists could begin to see that a fast, mobile campaign of maneuver would never come easily against Fortress Europe. An armed Gefreiter dug into a hillside was harder to remove than an impacted molar. Someone with perfect prescience might have seen that failure at the gates of Tunis had cascading consequences: delaying the invasion of the Italian boot by several months, preventing Allied armies from breaching the Gustav Line south of Rome until 1944, and extending the Italian campaign until the end of the war. But all that lay in the future, and was impossible to know.

For now, there were deficiencies to address. The tactical shortcomings of the U.S. Army had been all too evident, and they were meticulously catalogued by observers dispatched from the War Department. One report declared:

The German army makes war better than we are now making it. The prevailing attitude is that the North African operation is just another maneuver with live ammunition. The enemy is regarded as the visiting team, and this isnot a major game. Even units suffering heavy casualties did not evince hatred of the enemy…. Both officers and men are psychologically unprepared for war.

In another assessment, a colonel concluded, “More than discipline, I believe, [is] the lack of valor, the desire to kill or be killed; the will to fight is missing.” A major general indicted junior officers in particular for “not leading their men well, which is evidenced by the comparatively large proportion of casualties among field officers who have to supply the impetus to their juniors to move forward.”

All this was terribly true, but subtle changes could be sensed in the Americans. They were learning fieldcraft: how to keep off ridgelines, how to camouflage slit trenches, how to flush German crews from their tanks with white phosphorus smoke sucked into the engines. At first, few had known what many now knew: that battle is incessant noise, confusion, danger, and misery. Ernie Pyle was right: the velvet was all gone from living. They had seen things no man should see: incineration; evisceration; the soldier, killed by a booby trap, whose face resembled the “cracked porcelain surface of an old vase—thousands of small splits from the concussion.”

They were becoming hard-bitten. They were wary of excessively gungho leaders—known as “questers for glory”—but appreciative of those who remained calm and tactically alert. They had learned that combat was slower than expected, a choreography of feint, thrust, withdrawal, and parry; that the battlefield often seemed empty and lonely; that death was ubiquitous, a fifth element added to air, fire, water, and earth. True, they did not hate yet; but they were developing the capacity for hatred, which required a nihilistic core of resignation and rage. C. Russ Martin, a sergeant in the 1st Division, hinted at this upon hearing of the death of his twin brother in North Africa: “Twins, we feel for one another, and the minute he got killed, I knew it, a sensation and a kind of relief from worrying about him. I didn’t have to worry about him anymore.”

In the wake of Longstop, another weary general sat down to explain himself. Marked “personal and most secret,” Anderson’s lengthy Christmas Day letter to Alan Brooke was indeed both. “Things have not gone well and all my plans have had to be scrapped,” Anderson wrote. “I am very disappointed, as I am convinced we had an excellent chance of smashing our way into Tunis with my concentrated force, the Boche being rather widely spread.” But he and Eisenhower had agreed “to bow to force majeure…. This is the hand of God.”

He flicked through other campaign issues: Eisenhower seemed determined to shift the battle to southern Tunisia; the Americans had chosen not to give the British the remaining Sherman and Lee tanks from CCB; Darlan’s murder was probably “for the best,” although to strengthen Giraud further by making him commander-in-chief “would be disastrous. The man lives in the clouds.”

But Anderson’s great theme was the manifestation of the divine in this muddy, embattled world. He returned to that motif as he finished his dispatch. “I feel deflated and disappointed, but it is no use getting depressed. It would be too easy if we all attempted everything and succeeded.

“The Almighty,” he added, “is much too wise to spoil us mortals that way.”

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