Military history

A Man Must Believe in His Luck

KNOWN as TUXFORD in British codebooks and as DURBAR in the American, Gibraltar by any name was formidable. Guns bristled like needles from the great slab of Jurassic limestone, three miles long and a mile wide. British sentries patrolled the perimeter against all enemies of empire, keeping an especially keen eye on the surveillance teams—known to the Tommies as Der Führer’s Snoopers—that watched the Rock from La Línea on the Spanish side of the border. Canadian miners bored relentlessly with gelignite explosives and special drill bits, designed for the obdurate Rockies and edged with nine carats of industrial diamonds. Thirty miles of tunnel now wormed through Gibraltar. Compressed-air shovels removed the spoil, which engineers tamped into the sea to extend the airfield’s runway another 250 yards. Oilers, freighters, and refueling men-of-war filled the harbor, “as thick as logs behind a mill dam.” Tars on liberty wandered the narrow cobblestoned streets of Gibraltar town, delighted to learn that liquor was still just ten shillings a bottle.

The Snoopers had much to observe. Fourteen squadrons of fighter planes that had arrived by sea in crates over the past few weeks now stood assembled, wing to wing, around the colonial cemetery. The Gibraltar racecourse starter’s box had been converted into one of the world’s busiest control towers. Several hundred pilots took turns flying patrols in their Spitfires and Hurricanes to master local conditions; winds shearing off the cliffs could be so treacherous that windsocks at either end of the runway often pointed at each other.

Late in the afternoon of November 5, 1942, as the convoys bound for Algeria first nosed into the Mediterranean, five B-17 Flying Fortresses touched down on the airfield after a harrowing flight from England. Their departure from Bournemouth had twice been postponed by heavy fog on the Channel coast; as one pilot reported, “even the birds were walking.” Having flown only a hundred feet above the Atlantic, to evade enemy fighters, the planes then circled Gibraltar for an hour until the crowded runway could be cleared.

Staff cars pulled up to the stairs beneath each bomber to shield the arriving passengers from prying eyes. Their leader, disembarking from a plane named Red Gremlin, traveled under the nom de guerre of “General Howe.” But the baggage carted through town to the former convent now known as Government House was stenciled “Lieutenant General Dwight D. Eisenhower.” At eight P.M. Greenwich time, he cabled London, “Command post opens Gibraltar, 2000 Zulu, 5 November. Notify all concerned.”

Eisenhower left the guest suite on the second floor, ignoring the fat cask of sherry in the governor-general’s drawing room, and immediately headed for the tunnel angling into Mount Misery above the harbor. A guard in the sentry box snapped a salute as theTORCH commander and his staff marched past on their way to the command center. In the future Eisenhower would jog the half mile, but this evening the ten-minute walk allowed his British hosts to describe the underground lair that would be his headquarters for the next three weeks.

It was a subterranean village, with sewers, heating pipes, and water mains threading the tunnels. Signposts pointed down oblique shafts to a laundry and Monkey’s Cave Convalescent Hospital. A naked bulb burned every twenty-five feet, casting eerie shadows on the weeping limestone walls. Duckboards bridged the puddles, and clattering ventilation fans discouraged conversation. Rats were a nuisance; they even ate uncovered bars of soap. Galleries had been cut for three dozen offices built with corrugated sheeting. Jerry cans caught the dripping water.

Eisenhower’s brisk stroll also let the British take his measure. There was that incandescent grin, of course, said to be “worth an army corps in any campaign.” His eyes were wide-set and unwavering, his head broad-browed and perfectly centered over squared shoulders. Both his face and his hands moved perpetually, and he exuded a magnetic amiability that made most men want to please him. Perhaps that was because, as one admirer asserted, they intuited he was “good and right in the moral sense,” or perhaps it was because, as a British air marshal concluded, “Ike has the qualities of a little boy which make you love him.”

In his rapid rise, talent, opportunity, and fortune converged improbably—to many, it seemed, providentially. Patton—who earlier in the year had told Eisenhower, “You are my oldest friend”—privately claimed the initials “D.D.” stood for “Divine Destiny.” Thirty months earlier, Eisenhower had been a lieutenant colonel who had never commanded even a platoon in combat. Young Ike, the third son of a failed Midwestern merchant turned creamery worker, had chosen a military career because West Point provided a free education. After an indifferent cadetship he embarked on an ordinary career as a staff officer, stalled at the middling rank of major for sixteen years. Even his first venture into the rarefied circles he would inhabit for two decades was inauspicious: the White House usher’s log for February 9, 1942, recorded the initial visit to the Oval Office of one “P. D. Eisenhauer.”

His worldview seemed conventional, his gifts commensurate with the modesty he exuded. He was a true believer in Allied righteousness: “If [the Axis] should win we would really learn something about slavery, forced labor, and loss of individual freedom.” Congenitally willing to make decisions and shoulder responsibilities, he had limited opportunties for either in the interwar Army. “There’s a lot of big talk and desk hammering around this place—but very few doers!” he wrote in frustration. He took pride in being apolitical, as required of American Army officers, and he impressed others—as one British admiral later noted—as “completely sincere, straightforward, and very modest,” but “not very sure of himself.”

Yet he possessed depths enough to resist easy plumbing. “I have the feeling,” the war correspondent Don Whitehead later wrote, “that he was a far more complicated man than he seemed to be—a man who shaped events with such subtlety that he left others thinking they were the architects of those events. And he was satisfied to leave it that way.” Eisenhower’s sincerity and native fairness were so transparent that they obscured an incisive intellect. He had read much and thought much, concluding soon after the first world war that a second was inevitable—friends called him Alarmist Ike—and that the winning side must fight as a coalition under a unified command. He graduated first in his class at the Army’s staff college and served six years—in Washington and the Philippines—on the staff of that American Machiavelli, Douglas A. MacArthur, learning courtier’s arts best displayed in a palace or a headquarters.

His capacity for hard work was heroic; in the past eleven months, he had taken just one day off, which he spent practicing pistol marksmanship outside London. He wrote well and spoke very well; the infamous “wandering syntax” of his White House years, one historian concluded, was “contrived for presidential purposes.” His frequent “Dear General” letters to Marshall were dictated with clarity, precision, and occasional obsequiousness, as in this of October 20, 1942:

Whenever I’m tempted to droop a bit over the burdens cast upon us here, I think of the infinitely greater ones you have to bear and express to myself a fervent wish that the Army may be fortunate enough to keep you at its head until the final victory is chalked up.

To Mark Clark and other intimates, Eisenhower claimed he would rather be leading a division into combat, but the bravado rang hollow. So, too, did his posture of steely ruthlessness, a quality he had yet to develop. “I find,” he wrote in October, “that all my senior commanders are still inclined to regard inexcusable failures and errors with too tolerant an eye.” As if fearing his own exposure, he had written a friend, “Fake reputations, habits of glib and clever speech, and glittering surface performance are going to be discovered and kicked overboard.”

As D-Day for TORCH drew near he affected a hearty confidence. “Never felt better in my life,” he wrote on October 12, two days before his fifty-second birthday, “and, as the big day approaches, feel that I could lick Tarzan.” In fact he had been irritable and often depressed, smoking up to four packs of Camel cigarettes a day. To Marshall he would concede only that “it has been a trifle difficult to keep up, in front of everybody, a proper attitude of confidence and optimism.” Not until years later did he acknowledge “the sober, even fearful, atmosphere of those days.” For now, the concealment of his anxieties was part of the art of generalship.

Inside Gibraltar, just off Green Lane and Great North Road, several Nissen huts housed the operations center. The armada from Britain inched eastward on the charts of the Mediterranean that covered the wall. A map of the eastern Atlantic charted the estimated position of Hewitt’s fleet. A chagrined British officer showed Eisenhower the dank office he would share with Clark. It was an eight-foot-square cell, with a wall clock, maps of Europe and North Africa, and several straight-backed chairs. The plain desk held a water carafe, a pen set, and an ancient telephone of the sort surmounted with dual bells. Eisenhower was so amazed to find himself in command of Fortress Gibraltar that he hardly noticed the drab setting.

For forty-eight hours he paced and smoked. Communications with London and Washington, via ocean cable, were good, but he had nothing to report. The convoys from Britain kept radio silence, and of Hewitt’s task force virtually nothing was known—except that meteorologists forecast bad conditions in Morocco, with fifteen-foot swells. “Dear Kent,” Eisenhower radioed Hewitt, “here is wishing you all the glory there is and greatest success to you and Gen. Patton…. I’ll be around close if you need me…. As always, Ike.”

On November 6, Eisenhower had time to ask London about the health of his black Scottie dog, Telek. Privately, to Clark, he again grumbled about the decision to invade Africa rather than France. Whether the French in North Africa would resist was still unclear. Although General Mast had guaranteed that there would be no resistance at airfields near Oran and other key sites, on November 4 Robert Murphy in Algiers had relayed a warning from a top French commander, who revealed “orders to defend French Africa at all costs, so that we should not make the mistake of attacking.” Murphy sent another panicky cable insisting that TORCH be delayed at least two weeks to sort out Vichy politics, and was brusquely dismissed; the proposal was “inconceivable,” said Eisenhower. He and Clark agreed that Murphy had “the big and little jitters.”

On November 7, Eisenhower drove in a Ford to view the Barbary apes. An “officer-in-charge of Rock apes” was responsible for their survival—a heavy burden, given the British conviction that without its apes, the Rock would be lost to the empire. Eisenhower petted one for good luck. As the afternoon shadows lengthened, blue searchlights played over the airfield and the Spanish frontier. Fourteen hundred feet below, tiny ships milled about the harbor. Fifteen miles beyond Point Europa lay Africa, a tawny smudge on the southern horizon.

“We are standing of course on the brink and must take the jump,” he had cabled Marshall that morning. “We have worked our best to assure a successful landing, no matter what we encounter.”

His head cleared, Eisenhower returned to the tunnel and jogged down the Great North Road. The first substantive news from the TORCH transports had arrived. It was bad.

Not until reconnaissance planes finally detected the armada in the western Mediterranean had the Axis high command begun to suspect an invasion. Speculation about landing sites ranged from southern France to Egypt; the German navy considered French North Africa the least likely destination. Hitler believed the Allied ships were bound for Tripoli or Benghazi in an attempt to trap Rommel’s Afrika Korps, which had begun retreating from El Alamein after a thrashing from Montgomery’s Eighth Army. Hoping to annihilate the Allied fleet in the Sicilian Straits, Hitler ordered his available forces—thirty-five submarines and seventy-six aircraft—to concentrate at the narrows. “I await a ruthless, victorious attack,” he proclaimed. Too late, the Führer would realize that nearly all of his ambush force had been positioned too far east.

But not all. At daybreak on Saturday, November 7, U.S.S. Thomas Stone was making eleven knots in the left column of ships, thirty-three miles off the Spanish coast. Stone was among the few American transports in the armada. She carried 1,400 soldiers from the 2nd Battalion of the 39th Infantry, 9th Division regiment; Eisenhower had added them late to the Algiers assault, although they had little amphibious training. An alert officer on the bridge spotted the white runnel of a torpedo wake several hundred yards off the port side. “Hard right rudder!” he ordered the helmsman, then rang up flank speed. The ship tacked ninety degrees and was nearly parallel to the torpedo’s path when the blast ripped through her stern, so hard that sailors on Samuel Chase, 600 yards ahead, thought they had been struck.

Men already about their morning duties were flung to the deck. Captain B. Frank Cochran, the chaplain of the 39th Infantry, had risen early to read his Bible; now he heard the screams of dying sailors and shouts from a fire brigade heaving ammunition crates over the side. The blast demolished the fantail, snapped Stone’s propeller shaft, and killed nine men. Her rudder jammed at hard right, the ship drifted in a languid arc before stopping dead in the water, 160 miles from Algiers. Two white rockets burst above the superstructure, the signal for “I have been torpedoed.” As ordered, other ships in the formation steamed past without slowing; swabs watched wide-eyed from the rails.

The 2nd Battalion commander was an obstinate thirty-seven-year-old major named Walter M. Oakes. With Stone in no danger of sinking and help summoned from Gibraltar, Oakes assembled his men on deck and announced to lusty hurrahs that they would continue on to Algiers—in twenty-four landing craft. Chaplain Cochran, who was to remain aboard the Stone, offered the departing mariners his benediction, and at three P.M. the troops clambered down the boarding nets into the flimsy boats. Among them was a galley cook who stowed away in a landing craft rather than be left behind. “The men in this battalion,” he told his new comrades, “are lousy with courage.”

Soon enough, they were also desperately seasick. After wallowing about until dark, the matchwood fleet motored south in three columns at eight knots. At eight P.M., the first boat broke down. Ninety minutes later, the flotilla made way again, only to have two more boats stall. Overheated engines and ruptured oil lines now spread like the pox, with all boats forced to stop during each repair. An east wind rose, and with it the sea, forcing the men to bail with their helmets. At eleven P.M., the corvette H.M.S. Spey, assigned to guide the craft to Algiers Bay, darted off to investigate a mysterious radar contact four miles to the east. As the puttering boats waited, a white flare and the roar of 20mm cannon fire tore open the night. When the corvette returned, her chastened captain explained that his men had mistaken landing boat No. 28—lost and headed the wrong way—for an enemy submarine. Fortunately, the shots missed.

Shortly after midnight, boat No. 9 reported she was sinking after colliding with another craft. The men scrambled off and the seacocks were opened. By this time, the flotilla was making less than four knots, with a hundred miles still to cover. Tow ropes broke, engines seized up, retching soldiers by the hundreds hung their heads over the gunwales and prayed for land. Major Oakes agreed to cram the men into seven sea-worthy boats and scuttle the rest, a task Spey’s gunners undertook with uncommon zeal.

Even then the cause was lost—the sea too great, the craft too frail. Sodden and miserable, the battalion and its stowaway cook gingerly boarded the Spey. With all deliberation, to avoid shipping seas that would wash men overboard, the corvette steamed south, nearly foundered by the burden of an extra 700 men, but determined to invade Algiers, however belatedly.

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Some hours passed before Eisenhower learned that the first dire reports about the Stone, like most first dire reports, were exaggerated. She was not sinking; her troops had not perished. By the time an accurate account reached Gibraltar, however, he was occupied with a challenge to his generalship more distressing than a mere torpedo strike. The French had arrived.

General Henri Honoré Giraud had been plucked from the Côte d’Azur two days earlier by the ubiquitous H.M.S. Seraph. He wore a gray fedora and a wrinkled herringbone suit, with field glasses around his neck; stubble filled the hollows of his cheeks. Nor had his appearance been improved by a partial ducking during the perilous transfer from a fishing smack to the submarine. But his bearing was imperious and his handlebar mustache magnificent. Tall and lean, he marched down the Great North Road tunnel as though it were the Champs Élysées. It was then five P.M. on November 7.

In a briefcase, Giraud carried his own plans for the invasion of North Africa, the liberation of France, and final victory over Germany. He stepped into the tiny office where Eisenhower and Clark waited, and as the red do-not-disturb light flashed on outside the closed door, he proclaimed, “General Giraud has arrived.” Then: “As I understand it, when I land in North Africa, I am to assume command of all Allied forces and become the supreme Allied commander in North Africa.” Clark gasped, and Eisenhower managed only a feeble “There must be some misunderstanding.”

Indeed there was. Eisenhower had tried to avoid this meeting in part because the issue of command remained unresolved, and he had even written Giraud an apology for not seeing him, postdated with a phony London letterhead. But when the general showed up at Gibraltar demanding answers, Eisenhower relented.

Giraud was without doubt intrepid. U.S. intelligence reported that his last message before being captured in 1940 was this: “Surrounded by a hundred enemy tanks. I am destroying them in detail.” One officer described him flinging men into battle with a rousing“Allez, mes enfants!” Thrusting one hand into his tunic like Napoleon, he used the other to point heavenward whenever he spoke of the noble French army. In German captivity, he signed his letters “Resolution, Patience, Decision.”

But valor has its limits. Giraud, one of his countrymen observed, had the uncomprehending eyes of a porcelain cat. “So stately and stupid,” Harold Macmillan wrote, adding that the general was ever willing to “swallow down any amount of flattery and Bénédictine.” Privately, the Americans called Giraud “Papa Snooks.”

The general’s greatest genius appeared to be a knack for getting captured and then escaping. He had been taken prisoner in 1914, too, but soon made his way to Holland and then England, disguised as a butcher, a stableboy, a coal merchant, and a magician in a traveling circus. His April 1942 flight from Königstein, after two years’ imprisonment with ninety other French generals, was even more flamboyant. Saving string used to wrap gift packages, he plaited a rope reinforced with strips of wire smuggled in lard tins; after shaving his mustache and darkening his hair with brick dust, he tossed the rope over a parapet and—at age sixty-three—climbed down 150 feet to the Elbe River. Posing as an Alsatian engineer, he traveled by train to Prague, Munich, and Strasbourg with a 100,000-mark reward on his head, before slipping across the Swiss border and then into Vichy France.

Now he was in Eisenhower’s office, demanding Eisenhower’s job. Giraud spoke no English, and Clark, hardly fluent in French, labored with help from an American colonel to translate the words of a man who habitually referred to himself in the third person. “General Giraud cannot accept a subordinate position in this command. His countrymen would not understand and his honor as a soldier would be tarnished.” Eisenhower explained that the Allies, under the murky agreement negotiated at Cherchel and approved by Roosevelt, expected Giraud to command only French forces; acceding to his demand to command all Allied troops was impossible. To ease Giraud’s burden, the U.S. military attaché in Switzerland had made available 10 million francs in a numbered account. A staff officer with a map was summoned to describe the landings about to begin in Algeria and Morocco.

Giraud would not be deflected. The plan impressed him, but what about the bridgehead in southern France? He believed twenty armored divisions there should suffice. Were they ready? And was Eisenhower aware that Giraud outranked him, four stars to three? But the heart of the matter was supreme command of any landing on French soil. “Giraud,” he said, “cannot accept less.”

After four hours of this, Eisenhower emerged from what he now called “my dungeon,” his face as crimson as the light over the door. He had agreed to dine in the British admiralty mess while Giraud enjoyed the governor-general’s hospitality at Government House. Several days earlier, Eisenhower had warned Marshall: “The question of overall command is going to be a delicate one…. I will have to ride a rather slippery rail on this matter, but believe that I can manage it without giving serious offense.” Unfortunately, Clark had ended this first meeting by telling Giraud, “Old gentleman, I hope you know that from now on your ass is out in the snow.” Eisenhower dashed off a quick message to Marshall, closing with the simple confession: “I’m weary.”

Dinner at Government House, where the sherry cask was always full and the larder well provisioned, softened Giraud not a whit. Back in Eisenhower’s office at 10:30 P.M., with the red light again burning, he again refused all appeals. After two hours of circular argument, Giraud retired from the field. The impasse remained: Giraud wanted supreme command, not the limited command of French troops offered by the Americans. His favorite joke was that generals rose early to do nothing all day, while diplomats rose late for the same purpose; tomorrow’s dawn would bring another opportunity for inaction, and he announced plans to shop for underwear and shoes in the town bazaar. Clark threatened him again, although less crudely this time. “We would like the honorable general to know that the time of his usefulness to the Americans for the restoration of the glory that was France is now,” he said through the interpreter. “We do not need you after tonight.”

Giraud took his leave with a shrug and a final third-person declaration: “Giraud will be a spectator in this affair.” Eisenhower muttered a sour joke about arranging “a little airplane accident” for their guest, then headed outside for a few moments of meditation.

From the face of the Rock the Mediterranean stretched away to merge with the night sky in a thousand shades of indigo. Eisenhower was a gifted cardplayer and he sensed a bluff. Perhaps Giraud was playing for time, waiting to see how successful the invasion was. Eisenhower suspected he would come around once events had played out a bit.

Otherwise, the news was heartening. After more than two weeks of battle at El Alamein, Rommel was in full retreat from Egypt; the British Eighth Army could either destroy the Afrika Korps piecemeal, or drive Rommel into the TORCH forces that would soon occupy Tunisia. And not only had the Axis ambush in the Mediterranean been laid too far east, but a German wolfpack in the Atlantic had been lured away from Morocco by a British merchant convoy sailing from Sierra Leone. More than a dozen cargo ships were sunk, but Hewitt’s transports in Task Force 34 remained unscathed. Was it possible that the great secret would hold until morning? There had been some horrifying security breaches—secret papers, for instance, consigned to a blazing fire at Allied headquarters in London, had been sucked up the chimney, unsinged. Staff officers had scampered across St. James’s Square for an hour, spearing every scrap of white in sight. Still, the Axis forces appeared to have been caught unawares by TORCH.

To Marshall, Eisenhower had written: “I do not need to tell you that the past weeks have been a period of strain and anxiety. I think we’ve taken this in our stride…. If a man permitted himself to do so, he could get absolutely frantic about questions of weather, politics, personalities in France and Morocco and so on.”

Eisenhower headed back to his catacomb, dragging on another Camel. He spread his bedroll, determined not to stray from the operations center as he awaited reports from the front. “I fear nothing except bad weather and possibly large losses to submarines,” he had asserted with the bravado of a man obliged by his job to fear everything. Years later, after he was crowned with laurels by the civilized world he had helped save, Eisenhower would remember these hours as the most excruciating of the entire war. In the message to Marshall he had added a poignant postscript.

“To a certain extent,” he wrote, “a man must merely believe in his luck.”

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