Military history

Rendezvous at Cherchel

EVEN before the fleet weighed anchor in Virginia, a small invasion vanguard had arrived off the African coast. This party comprised fewer than a dozen men; their mission—both courageous and daft—would become one of the most celebrated clandestine operations of the war.

It began with a single light. Major General Mark W. Clark stood on the bridge of the submarine H.M.S. Seraph at ten P.M. on October 21, peering through his binoculars at a bright beacon on the Algerian coast. Braced to absorb the submarine’s roll, he raked the lenses across the white line of surf two miles away. After several days of creeping submerged across the Mediterranean from Gibraltar at four knots, Clark was desperate to get ashore. Though Seraph surfaced every night to recharge her batteries, the fetid air inside grew so stale each day that a struck match would not light. Clark and the four other American officers had passed the time playing countless rubbers of bridge or, after lessons from the British commandos aboard, hands of cribbage. Small bruises covered Clark’s head; at six foot three inches tall, he found it impossible to dodge the sub’s innumerable pipes and knobs.

“There’s the sugar-loaf hill to the left. I can see its outline against the sky,” Clark told Seraph’s commander, Lieutenant Norman L. A. Jewell. A pale glow to the east marked the fishing port of Cherchel, said to have been founded by Selene, daughter of Mark Antony and Cleopatra. Algiers lay another sixty miles up the coast. Clark focused again on the light burning in the seaward gable of an isolated farmhouse. “There’s a beach below the house. A black splotch behind the beach—that’s the grove of trees,” Clark said. “Yessir, this is the place we’re looking for.”

Jewell ordered the diesel engines started. Seraph edged forward to within 400 yards of the breakers and hove to. A rising moon silvered the deck and dark sea. The commandos deftly assembled the folbots—two-man kayaks made with hickory frames and canvas skins. Clark and the other Americans rechecked their inventory, including money belts stuffed with greenbacks and $1,000 in Canadian gold pieces, which had been obtained with difficulty from the Bank of England vault in central London on Sunday afternoon. Every man wore his military uniform; six German saboteurs, captured in civilian clothes after being put ashore by U-boat in New York and Florida, had died in the District of Columbia electric chair two months earlier. No one on this mission wanted to be executed as a spy.

The first three pairs of men successfully grabbed the folbot rails and eased themselves into the waist holes. But as Clark was about to step from the submarine, the heavy lop flipped his boat and the commando already in it, Captain Godfrey B. Courtney. “I’ve got to get off!” Clark shouted. “I’ve got to go now.” Another folbot was recalled and one of the Americans surrendered his seat to Clark. The submarine crew righted the capsized craft and fished Courtney from the sea. Ready at last, the men feathered away fromSeraph with their double-scoop paddles, then turned in a V formation toward the beckoning light above the beach.

Mark Clark—Wayne, to his friends—was an odd choice to lead a clandestine mission behind enemy lines. As Eisenhower’s deputy and chief planner, he knew more about Operation TORCH than any man alive. He also was among the few Americans privy to Ultra, the intelligence gathered through British decipherment of coded German radio messages—a secret so profound it was jokingly known as BBR, “burn before reading.” Should Vichy forces capture Clark and surrender him to the Gestapo, the consequences would be incalculable, for both TORCH and the Allied cause.

That Eisenhower had entrusted this mission to Clark despite the hazards was a sign of both his naïveté as the new Allied commander-in-chief and his faith in Clark, who had become his indispensable alter ego. Clark’s parents were an Army officer and the daughter of an immigrant Romanian Jew; as a West Point cadet, he had had himself baptized an Episcopalian, the creed considered most expedient for aspiring generals. At the academy he was known as Contraband for his guile in smuggling forbidden sweets into the barracks. More important, he fashioned a friendship with the company sergeant, an older cadet named Ike Eisenhower. Seriously wounded by shrapnel in 1918, Clark as a young captain between the world wars had been detailed to a Chautauqua tour, spreading the gospel of Army life with an ensemble of ventriloquists, road-company Macbeths, and Swiss bell ringers.

More recently, while serving as a War Department staff officer, he had been credited with designing the Army’s assembly-line techniques for mass-producing divisions. In June 1941, his superior officer described him as “a rare combination of a most attractive personality with a stout heart and fine tact and intelligence.” George Marshall had asked him, after Pearl Harbor, for a list of ten able brigadier generals from among whom to select a new war plans chief. “I’ll give you one name and nine dittos,” Clark replied. “Dwight D. Eisenhower.” Years later Eisenhower would tell Clark, “You are more responsible than anybody in this country for giving me my opportunity.”

The debt was repaid in August 1942, when Eisenhower made Clark his chief planner in London and the deputy TORCH commander. Soon the two Americans were favorites of Churchill, frequently summoned to No. 10 Downing Street or the prime minister’s country home at Chequers for midnight skull sessions. Clark vividly described Churchill, dressed in his baggy smock and carpet slippers, expounding on strategy while drinking brandy or devouring a late supper:

When the soup was put before him, he tackled it vigorously, his mouth about two inches from the liquid and his shoulders hunched over. He ate with a purring and slurping and the spoon went from mouth to plate so rapidly you could hardly see it until he was scraping the bottom of the bowl and bawling lustily, “More soup!” Turning to his guests, he’d say, “Fine soup, ain’t it?”

Like Eisenhower, Clark had vaulted over hundreds of more senior officers in the past two years, during his ascent from major to major general. Meticulous and shrewd, he was also given to a relentless self-promotion that vexed his friends and outraged his rivals. Among the latter was Patton, who confided to his diary in late September: “He seems to me more preoccupied with bettering his own future than in winning the war.” Another general called Clark the “evil genius” of the Allied force, but that epithet both diminished and caricatured his role. In truth, he was a gifted organizer—his daily memos to Eisenhower are tiny masterpieces of precision and efficiency—bedeviled by insecurities. “The more stars you have, the higher you climb the flagpole, the more of your ass is exposed,” he once asserted. “People are always watching for opportunities to misconstrue your actions.”

The voyage to Cherchel had been hastily organized at the secret request of General Charles Emmanuel Mast, a senior Vichy commander in Algiers. Mast had sent word that he wanted to confer with a high-ranking American about how the Allies might “gain entry practically without firing a shot.” Clark insisted on leading the mission, “happy as a boy with a new knife” at both the prospective adventure and the chance to consummate the greatest American diplomatic coup of the war.

In addition to collecting intelligence through Ultra, the Allies had managed—by seduction and burglary—to purloin various Italian, Vichy French, and Spanish diplomatic codes. Washington also had an espionage network in North Africa: a dozen American vice consuls, known as the Twelve Apostles, who technically served as “food control officers” under a trade agreement still in effect between Vichy and Washington. But the Apostles were hardly professional spies. One had been a Coca-Cola salesman in Mississippi, and another was described as “an ornament of Harry’s Bar in Paris.” A third later confessed, “I didn’t even know how to pry open a desk drawer.” The Apostle Kenneth Pendar, a former Harvard archaeologist, acknowledged, “We flew over…to drop like so many Alices into the African Wonderland.” A dismissive German agent reported to Berlin: “All their thoughts are centered on their social, sexual, and culinary interests.” Although the Apostles in fact collected useful information about ports, beaches, and coastal defenses, they could not answer the most fundamental question: Would the French fight? Clark intended to find out.

Only a howling dog and the murmuring surf broke the stillness as Clark and Captain Courtney waited 200 yards offshore. It was now shortly after midnight on October 22. Moonlight and that naked bulb dangling in the dormer revealed that the farmhouse on the bluff had a red tile mansard roof and stucco walls draped with vines. From the beach came the all-clear signal: the dash-dot-dash of a Morse “k.” Leaning into their paddles, the two men skimmed neatly across the breakers and joined the others, who were already dragging their boats across the sand.

From an olive grove at the edge of the bluff stepped a tall, stooped man wearing a turtleneck sweater, sneakers, and a baseball cap. Robert Murphy was the top American diplomat in Algiers, as well as the Apostles’ spymaster. “Welcome to North Africa,” he said, with the insouciance of an experienced host greeting dinner guests. Clark abandoned the grand speech he had prepared in French and replied simply, “I’m damned glad we made it.” The men shouldered the folbots and followed Murphy up the hill and through a large green gate. Entering a courtyard lined with palm trees, they passed the villa’s owner, a French patriot named Henri Teissier, who stood watching nervously from the shadows. Eyeing Clark with his carbine, another Frenchman muttered, “A general with a rifle! What sort of army is this?” After hiding the boats in a kitchen storeroom, they settled into a small, untidy room in the farmhouse, toasting their good fortune with glasses of whiskey before stretching out for a nap.

Murphy was too excited to sleep. This rendezvous was his doing, and he believed that if it succeeded he could deliver North Africa into the Allied camp without bloodshed. Now forty-seven, with pale Irish skin and “a gaiety that brought out gaiety in others,” he had grown up in Milwaukee. A foot crushed in an elevator accident had kept him out of the military in World War I; instead, he studied law before joining the diplomatic corps. Fluent in German and French, genial and cultured, he spent a decade in Paris; when the Germans marched in, he followed the rump government to Vichy on orders from Washington. He had helped arrange the secret shipment of nearly 2,000 tons of gold from the Bank of France to Dakar on an American cruiser, and Roosevelt, who always appreciated a charming operator, appointed Murphy his personal representative to French Africa with the admonition “Don’t bother going through State Department channels.” For months Murphy had shuttled between Washington and London, occasionally disguised as a lieutenant colonel because, as General Marshall noted, “nobody ever pays any attention to a lieutenant colonel.” On frequent trips to North Africa, he smuggled radio transmitters in his diplomatic pouches.

By nature drawn to the conservative status quo, Murphy was distrusted by the Free French of Charles de Gaulle, who dismissed him as “inclined to believe that France consisted of the people he dined with in town.” The British diplomat Harold Macmillan concluded that Murphy “has an incurable habit of seeing every kind of person and agreeing with them all in turn.” Bob Murphy shrugged off such derision with an impish smile, secure in the conviction that he was doing Roosevelt’s bidding.

At six A.M., General Mast arrived by car from Algiers with five staff officers. Murphy roused Clark and the others for introductions, followed by a breakfast of coffee and sardines in the living room. Short, burly, and fluent in English, Mast had been captured by the Germans in 1940 and repatriated after months in Saxony’s notorious Königstein prison. His post as deputy commander of the Vichy army’s XIX Corps notwithstanding, he had the heart of an insurrectionist. If the Americans were to invade North Africa, Mast told Clark, they should consider doing it in the spring, when rebel officers would be fully ready to help. Clark had strict orders not to disclose that TORCH was actually under way; he replied vaguely that it was “best to do something soon. We have the army and the means.”

For more than four hours, the two generals exchanged mendacities. Mast urged the Americans to align themselves with his patron, Henri Giraud, a senior general whose bold recent escape from Königstein had galvanized French resistance. If you bring Giraud to Algiers from his hiding place in southern France, Mast promised, all North Africa will “flame into revolt” and rally around him as a symbol of French resurgence. With sufficient weapons—Mast nearly wept, describing the bedraggled Vichy troops—North Africa could field an army of 300,000 in common cause with the Allies, all under Giraud’s inspiring generalship. He also urged a simultaneous invasion of southern France to prevent the Germans from seizing the fragment of the country controlled by Vichy.

Clark carefully sifted through Mast’s proposals. He pledged immediate delivery of 2,000 automatic weapons to North Africa, a promise that would not be kept. In a rare show of candor, he admitted that simultaneous invasions of North Africa and metropolitan France exceeded Allied means. But he assured Mast that any assault would be more than a hit-and-run raid like that at Dieppe in August. An African invasion force would involve half a million men with 2,000 aircraft. This was a fivefold exaggeration.

“Where are these five hundred thousand men to come from?” Mast asked. “Where are they?”

“In the U.S. and U.K.,” Clark replied.

“Rather far, isn’t it?”

“No.”

Perhaps lies and misunderstandings were inevitable: Clark could hardly disclose the imminence of TORCH, even if Mast’s good faith seemed genuine. But by mid-morning tiny seeds of confusion and distrust had been sown over the timing of the invasion, the political realities of Vichy North Africa, the extent to which each side could aid the other, and, most important, who would command whom. At eleven, Mast stood and announced that he must return to Algiers before his absence aroused suspicions. Before walking to his car, he warned Clark, “The French navy is not with us. The army and the air force are.”

Mast also repeated his earlier assertion that General Giraud intended to command all forces in North Africa, including any Allied troops. Clark was noncommittal, and Mast left in a flurry of salutes. He drove slowly past the café card players and old men bowling on the public square in Cherchel, taking with him the pleasant delusion that he had weeks or even months to properly prepare for an Allied invasion.

After twelve hours of hosting this cabal, M. Teissier had become visibly anxious. Nevertheless, he served the conspirators a fortifying lunch of peppery chicken with red wine and oranges. Several of General Mast’s staff officers had remained at the farmhouse for further talks. They handed over maps and charts pinpointing gasoline and ammunition caches, airfields, troop strengths, and other military secrets. Clark swapped uniform blouses with one of the Frenchmen and took a stroll in the courtyard for some fresh air.

The happy colloquy ended abruptly with the jangling of the telephone early that evening. Teissier answered, then slammed down the receiver with a shriek. “The police will be here in five minutes!” This news, Clark later observed, had the effect of “fifty dead skunks thrown on the table.” One French officer bolted out the door with his satchel. Others leaped through the windows and vanished into the brush. Gold pieces clattered across the floor as the Americans flung francs, Canadian dollars, and greenbacks at Murphy to use for possible bribes. Clark rousted the British commandos and sent one packing toward the beach with a walkie-talkie to alert the Seraph. With six others, he then scrambled into a dank wine cellar beneath the patio. “I don’t want you to lock me up,” he called. Teissier slammed the trapdoor anyway. The men crouched in darkness, clutching their rifles and musette bags full of documents.

Murphy and Teissier agreed to feign an inebriated revel, with much slurred singing and clinking of wine bottles. At 9:30 P.M., a coast guard cadet loyal to Teissier arrived at the green gate to explain his earlier telephone warning: an off-duty servant had reported odd activity at the farmhouse, and the police, suspecting smugglers, were organizing a raid. Murphy urged the cadet to stall the authorities as long as possible. “We had a little party down here. We had some girls, a little liquor, and food,” Murphy said. “Everybody’s left now, but I can assure you that no harm was done.”

Clark and the others soon emerged from the cellar. “Get the hell down to the beach as fast as you can,” Murphy urged. Collecting the folbots, the men clattered down the bluff. The brisk clacking of a nearby windmill signaled a freshening sea breeze, and to Clark’s dismay waves five to seven feet high now crashed onto the shore. He stripped to his under-shorts, tucking the money belt and his rolled-up trousers in the boat’s waisthole. After a short sprint into the surf, he and one of the commandos leaped aboard, paddling furiously. An immense comber lifted the nose of the kayak until the craft was nearly vertical, then pitched it backward into the foaming sea. “To hell with the pants,” someone yelled from shore, “save the paddles.”

Cold, drenched, and trouserless, Clark requisitioned an underling’s pants and hiked to the villa, where he was confronted by a horrified Teissier. “Please, for God’s sake,” the Frenchman begged, “get out of the house.” Clark snapped, “I don’t like to be hurried.” Wrapped in a silk tablecloth, he hobbled barefoot back to the beach with a loaf of bread, two borrowed sweaters, and several bottles of wine. To keep warm, Clark bobbed up and down in a frenzy of deep-knee bends; meanwhile, the men reviewed their options. Should they storm Cherchel to steal a fishing boat? Perhaps they could buy one instead; Murphy suggested offering 200,000 francs. A French officer pointed out that either gambit would likely bring the police if not the army. The Americans agreed that if any Arab blundered onto the beach, they would lasso and strangle him.

At four A.M., someone noticed a sheltered spot where the surf seemed a bit calmer. Clark and a comrade mounted their kayak. Four others carried the boat to shoulder depth and shoved it seaward. Again the craft nosed up nearly perpendicular to the shore, but this time it crested the wave. Aboard Seraph, Lieutenant Jewell eased the submarine so close to shore that her keel shivered from proximity to the sea floor. The other boats, after capsizing at least once each, finally cleared the surf and made for the silhouetted conning tower. Murphy capered along the beach, kissing the French officers in glee as they collected the commandos’ abandoned tommy guns and raked all footprints from the sand.

Clark’s men spread their sopping documents in the engine room to dry. Fortified with a double tot of Nelson’s blood from Seraph’s rum cask, Clark composed a message for London:

Eisenhower eyes only…All questions were settled satisfactorily except for the time the French would assume supreme command…. Anticipate that the bulk of the French army and air forces will offer little resistance…. Initial resistance by French navy and coastal defenses indicated by naval information which also indicates that this resistance will fall off rapidly as our forces land.

Jewell swung the submarine due west, toward Gibraltar, and sounded the dive klaxon.

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