Military history

Part Three



The Ice-Cream Front

AT 10:30 P.M. on Saturday, January 9, 1943, the presidential limousine rolled through the White House gates and turned south past the rime-glazed Ellipse and the Washington Monument. Only four blocks from the executive mansion, the car veered down a guarded ramp on the east side of Fourteenth Street and vanished beneath the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. The new presidential rail coach, Ferdinand Magellan, stood on a secret spur built two months earlier to allow secure shipments of newly printed paper money from the government presses overhead. Secret Service agents opened the limousine door and carried the president half a dozen steps to the railcar, gently setting him into an armless wheelchair. Gray and haggard from another war winter in Washington, Roosevelt nevertheless grinned broadly as he slipped a cigarette into his holder. The great adventure had begun.

A few final items were hoisted onto the train, including gas masks and a rack of M-1 carbines. To avoid suspicious piles of luggage at the White House, agents had picked up the suitcases of the president’s thirty traveling companions at their houses. The porters and waiters who normally staffed the presidential train had been replaced by Filipino mess stewards from the White House yacht. Custom built by the Pullman Company, the Ferdinand Magellan was a plush, wheeled fortress with window glass three inches thick and an armored rear door that weighed nearly a ton. The main coach had four staterooms, an observation deck, a dining room that could seat twelve, and a galley stocked with presidential favorites, including wild duck, terrapin, and vintage wines. A baggage car behind the engine had been converted into a communications center, with a coding machine and four transmitters powered by a pair of 10,000-watt generators capable of lighting a small town.

With a steamy sigh, the train lurched forward, clacking past the Navy Yard. Not until half an hour before departure had the engineer been given any inkling of their destination: feint north into Maryland as if heading to the Roosevelt home in Hyde Park, New York, he was told, then turn around on a siding at Fort Meade and head south. So secret was the trip that Roosevelt was listed on the manifest simply as “Register Number 1.” His press secretary would learn that the president had left Washington only upon walking into his empty bedroom on Monday morning.

Roosevelt loved maps, and he had pored over the route of their five-day journey: twenty-seven hours by train to Miami—the stewards would burn incense to mask the ripening odor of dirty laundry—then a chartered Pan Am flying boat to Trinidad, followed by another flight to Brazil, and a third leg 2,000 miles across the Atlantic, to Gambia on Africa’s west coast. Navy ships had been posted along the water route in case the plane went down; all crews were sworn to secrecy. This would be Roosevelt’s first flight since 1932, and the first time an American president had ever left the country during war.

But their final destination still remained secret even from some members of the traveling party. With his affection for the clandestine, Roosevelt had dropped a clue yet to be deciphered. At the usual White House party for family and friends on New Year’s Eve, before his champagne toast “to the united nations’ victory,” the president had shown his guests a new film directed by Michael Curtiz. Starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, the melodrama told the story of an American expatriate struggling with his conscience and his heart in Vichy North Africa in 1941.

Capitaine Renault: What in heaven’s name brought you to Casablanca?

Rick: My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.

Renault: The waters? What waters? We’re in the desert.

Rick: I was misinformed.

No one had guessed that Casablanca was anything but a movie.

There was no Rick in Casablanca, no Ilsa, no Nazi goons or tinkling piano in the Café Américain. But of intrigue there was plenty, and not even Hollywood could imagine the goings-on in the well-heeled suburb of Anfa. A kind of Roman camp was under construction, roughly a mile square and enclosed by concertina wire hung with pebble-filled tin cans. At the center of the camp stood a white four-story hotel that resembled a riverboat stranded amid date palms. German Armistice Commission members had lived here before November 8; the rooms had since been cleansed of canned Schweinebraten and photographs of toothy, buxom girls on skis. The Signal Corps had installed three switchboards, a message center, and forty-one miles of phone cable.

Fragrant with begonias and mimosa, the lush grounds swept down to the sea, where roaring surf heaved against a black breakwater. Eighteen villas dotted the Anfa landscape, each recently appropriated from a wealthy French colon. Secret Service agents removed eavesdropping microphones from several villas, but left the volumes of Boccaccio illustrated with fine pornographic woodcuts. The grandest of the houses, Dar es Saada, had a living room with a twenty-eight-foot cathedral ceiling and zebra-hide sofas; steel shutters protected the tall windows. Engineers converted the swimming pool into a bomb shelter reinforced with steel plates stripped from the late Jean Bart. As ordered, Army carpenters built a wooden ramp up the steps to the villa’s front door. They wondered why.

Supplies and personnel poured into the camp, including officers dragooned as hotel desk clerks. American soldiers prowled the area with mine detectors and Geiger counters. Physicians tested food and bottled water for poisons before the provisions were placed under armed guard. A pallet of fine brandy arrived from London. From Algiers, as requested, Eisenhower shipped three cases of gin, three cases of Scotch, and five young captains from the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. With excruciating indirection, a protocol officer tried to find out whether a regimental band from the 2nd Armored Division knew how to play “Hail to the Chief.” Belated attempts were made to teach American soldiers some decorum: on posters in company billets, George Washington on horseback admonished them not to curse.

Overseeing this feverish activity was the putative viceroy of Morocco, George Patton. In the two months since TORCH’s end, Patton had converted Casablanca into a vast supply depot and a port of debarkation for the thousands of troops pouring into Africa every week. “Every other four-wheeler horse cab had two or three Americans on board,” author A. B. Austin wrote. “You could see them strolling through the parks, sitting with French girls in cafés, riding on bicycles and in jeeps, playing baseball.” Soldiers firing tommy guns chased quail through the cork forests outside town, while officers hunted wild boar with platoons of Moroccan bush-beaters. French municipal officials assured American generals that venereal disease in Moroccan brothels had long been “absolutely steady”—at 100 percent. So comfortable was life in Casablanca, with its nut-cake patisseries and sleeve-tugging flesh merchants, that it became known as “the Ice-Cream Front.”

Patton was miserable. Whether careering about in his huge Packard limousine or staring at the sea from his office atop the Shell Oil building, he brooded at being shunted into this backwater also known as Boring Acres. During a brief visit to Tunisia he strutted about, crowing, “Where are the Germans? I want to get shot at.” Later he scribbled, “I want to be Top Dog and only battle can give me that.” Favorable press clippings fed his vanity—Bea had collected more than a thousand articles about her husband since November 8. Yet such meretricious laurels only whetted his thirst for real glory. “Personally,” he wrote in a letter home, “I wish I could get out and kill someone.”

Patton discharged much of his frustration at his immediate superiors. He had been heartsick to learn of Clark’s promotion to lieutenant general, which gave him three stars to Patton’s two. Clark was “too damned slick,” Patton declared, and “makes my flesh creep.” He railed at Eisenhower’s perceived tilt toward the British and his use of English colloquialisms such as “tiffin” and “petrol.” “I don’t think he or Clark have any idea what they are going to do next,” he said. Patton sensed a growing rift between the two men and happily encouraged it by offering a sympathetic ear to each. Clark for more than an hour “spent his time cutting Ike’s throat,” Patton told his diary on January 10, “[and] feels that Ike has sold out to British.” For his part, Eisenhower confided worries about Clark’s loyalty. “He and Clark are at outs,” Patton wrote privately.

But high-command politics would have to wait. The first of a hundred high-ranking guests had begun to filter into Casablanca for the conference now code-named SYMBOL. Patton was their host, and his full attention was needed to keep his visitors happy.

Arriving from Washington, London, Gibraltar, and Algiers, the conferees landed at a new airfield ten miles inland, where they were quickly bundled into waiting limousines. To confound prying eyes during the drive to Anfa, the car windows were smeared with mud. A diplomat reported seeing GIs around the runway “working up mud like nursery children, and slinging it with infinite satisfaction at a clean, polished sedan.”

The American chiefs of staff had departed Washington on January 9 in a pair of transport planes carrying six steamer trunks of trinkets for trading with the locals, as well as parkas, snowshoes, and other arctic gear in the unlikely event the aircraft missed Africa and crash-landed on the Russian steppe. They had not even left the Western Hemisphere when a protocol squabble erupted over whether the plane carrying Admiral Ernest J. King, the flinty chief of naval operations, should remain airborne at Puerto Rico until George Marshall landed first, as befitted the senior officer in the delegation. This flapdoodle was followed, on the leg to Gambia, by such dire warnings from the quartermaster general about malevolent African mosquitoes that each passenger was encouraged to take full malaria prophylaxis. When the plane taxied to a stop at the Gambian seaport of Bathurst, Marshall was first down the stairs—in mosquito boots, gloves, and a floppy veiled hat like a beekeeper’s—only to be greeted by nonplused British officers in khaki shorts and shirtsleeves.

Now, finally, they were in Casablanca.

Churchill and his entourage arrived after a ten-hour flight in an unheated bomber from a field near Oxford. As was his custom on long plane trips, the prime minister wore a silk vest and nothing else. Each passenger had been issued a parachute, currency from every country in which the plane might conceivably crash, and a device for catching the dew so as not to die of thirst—if “we were clever enough to use it properly,” one passenger wrote. Churchill, who adored skullduggery no less than Roosevelt did, sometimes traveled disguised in a false beard; on this trip, he settled for an RAF uniform. Upon landing in Casablanca, he dodged security officers trying to shoo him into a car and instead marched around the tarmac, smoking a cigar and shaking hands while his twenty suitcases were unloaded. “Any fool can see that is an air commodore disguised as the prime minister,” a British general quipped. One admirer thought he resembled “a big English bulldog who had been taught to give his paw.”

He was perhaps more fox than dog. The Casablanca conference, while reviewing progress of the campaign in Africa, was primarily intended to chart the Allied course for the rest of the war, although in Stalin’s absence: he refused to leave the Soviet Union while the battle for Stalingrad continued. Roosevelt had warned his lieutenants that “at the conference the British will have a plan and stick to it.”

True enough. Churchill was no keener on a frontal assault across the English Channel than he had been six months earlier, during the TORCH debate; on November 9, even with the African landings still in progress, he had begun agitating for “a decisive attack on Italy, or, better still, southern France.” To help build the British case for a continuing Mediterranean campaign, he had ordered a headquarters ship, H.M.S. Bulolo, to Casablanca. With its war room full of planning studies bound in red leather dispatch folders,Bulolo symbolized the British empire’s formidable bureaucratic firepower.

On the evening of his arrival at Anfa Camp, Churchill gathered his military chieftains in Villa Mirador, a stone’s throw from the slightly grander Dar es Saada, which awaited Roosevelt’s arrival. The prime minister knew that the American military considered the Mediterranean “a kind of dark hole,” where additional “periphery pecking” would simply delay the cross-Channel invasion needed to attack the Nazi jugular. The Americans also believed the British had little sympathy for their struggle in the Pacific against the Japanese. But for Churchill, as his physician Lord Moran put it, “the control of the Mediterranean meant…control of the Western world.” The Middle Sea was critical to British imperial fortunes in Egypt, the Middle East, and India; Churchill also deemed it the Axis’s most vulnerable point.

The prime minister quickly outlined the British plan for Casablanca: he would lobby Roosevelt; the British chiefs would lobby their American counterparts; all issues would be discussed fully, without reference to clock or calendar. The relentless logic of the British position would eventually win through, Churchill promised, like “the dripping of water on a stone.”

The task involved nothing less than the future of civilization. To Harold Macmillan, Churchill and Roosevelt were, respectively, the Emperor of the East and the Emperor of the West. The former had a plan, indeed he did, and he intended to stick to it. Now all that remained before SYMBOL began in earnest was for the Emperor of the West to arrive with whatever thoughts he had on how to win the war.

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