- Contributed by
- Sgt Len Scott RAPC
- People in story:
- Leonard Scott, Brigadier Francis Rabino, Admiral Jean-Francois Darlan
- Location of story:
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 17 May 2004
Brigadier Francis Rabino (centre) with fellow senior officers in Algiers, 1942
A musical Christmas
Christmas 1942 - and still no word from my wife Minna. On 2 January 1943 I wrote: 'I wonder how you spent Christmas and New Year. I will tell you how I spent mine. On Christmas Eve we 27 Area Cash Office lads were invited to dinner with a family here. We were fifteen at table - seven soldiers and eight civilians. We had a pretty good spread and I had a pretty girl on either side! We sang all the songs we knew - English songs and, I confess, some of them brought a lump into my throat. Then our hosts sang all the French songs they knew and so the evening wore on with plenty of high spirits and interesting conversation. The party broke up at about three a.m. On Christmas Day I went to the Cathedral - there was some really fine singing and music - and I had my Christmas dinner with another local family. This time I had only one friend with me but we were made to feel really at home.
A noisy welcome to 1943
'On New Year's Eve we decoded to launch a little hospitality of our own. We seven began to transform the office into a dining room. A long table - with a real tablecloth - stretched from one end of the room to the other. A hastily improvised sideboard bent beneath the weight of a battery of bottles. We sat down fifteen-handed once again and after a somewhat chilly start it was Christmas Eve all over again. When midnight struck we joined hands for 'Auld Lang Syne' and at the same time the Navy weighed in with its own celebrations. All the ships in the harbour sounded their sirens and opened up with bursts of fire from their anti-aircraft batteries. Then, from ship to ship, the searchlights splashed out vividly, spattering the night with the Victory signal in Morse. We abandoned the party and rushed out. The whole of the starry sky was streaked with tracer bullets and the beams from the ships. It was a memorable sight. Then we returned and carried on with the festivities.
'We had a little dancing and then we tried to teach the local girls some of the English party games - the ones that have kissing mixed up with them! The ice was broken when we discovered that it is the custom here for all the girls to kiss all the men immediately after midnight on New Year's Eve. But as we went out to see the ships I was thinking of the nights at home when we stood by the window and looked out into the starlit, silent night and heard the clock striking, far away, across the fields. I could have wept.
'My next job was to dispose of our Irish sergeant who had drunk well and wanted to rake up Oliver Cromwell. With a little assistance this was achieved without bloodshed. After we had escorted the ladies home we turned in at five a.m. with the prospect of reveille at 6.30.'
The murder of Darlan
There was one enormous omission from this account. On Christmas Eve there was a murder which made a stir in the world and would involve many coded messages from Brigadier Francis Rabino to Mr. Speed. A young man, Ferdinand Bonnier de la Chapelle burst into the Winter Palace and shot Admiral Jean-Francois Darlan, the French High Commissioner of Algeria. Within twenty-four hours the assassin - alleged to be a French Royalist and a member of the Resistance - had been court-martialled and shot.
Years later the story surfaced that the assassin had been one of a group and he had 'drawn the short straw'. It was further alleged that the assassination had been planned by the British Secret Service. Nothing I saw during the months I was with Rabino supported this story. But I did wonder about my strange meeting with the Comte and Comtesse Guyot de St. Remy in their coastal villa a few weeks earlier. They were certainly 'Gaullists'.
Today, soldiers serving overseas are flooded with information via radio and television - they can even chat to their families on mobile phones. We had no such advantages, had insufficient knowledge to make judgments about local politics. Darlan? Most of us shrugged and turned to domestic matters which gave us more concern - like the non-arrival of any mail from England since our landing. Only when Rabino showed me a dossier on this affair in the course of our messages to London did I begin to understand a little of the background.
As we (wrongly) understood it at the time, the Allied landings had been facilitated by Darlan, a man trusted by Marshal Petain in Vichy France. Darlan had been approached by the Americans, promised much and arrived in Algiers agreeing to cease collaborating with the Germans and to ensure that the French forces in North Africa - some 100,000 - would not oppose the initial landing of about 10,000 Allied troops (though the American were given a hard time at Casablanca). In fact few, if any, of these promises were kept.
Darlan's death eased the way for General de Gaulle, supposedly detested equally by the British and the Americans. Indeed Rabino told me of an incident when de Gaulle was kept kicking his heels in 10 Downing Street while Churchill took a bath. Churchill was alleged to have called 'Send in the Frog' and received him while still semi-submerged. True or not Winston is on record as referring to de Gaulle as 'Joan of Arc'.
Thus, the removal of the Darlan joker from the political pack left two 'kings' jockeying for position - Generals de Gaulle and Giraud. Rabino's despatches about this affair and the two prima donnas were illuminating. Unlike his American colleagues with their schoolboy French and heavy reliance upon interpreters, the Brigadier knew his France and his Frenchmen. He also knew Arabic. His sources provided him with documents which proved interesting to London. It was a privilege to work for him and to be trusted to perform the preliminary translations of some sensitive material.
A circumspect correspondence
I could tell Minna nothing beyond the fact that I was working 'as secretary and stooge to an important gentleman who is also very considerate. My knowledge of French got me the job - plus a hell of a lot of bluff. We occasionally have discussions about books and music. Incidentally, his wife is Swedish.' I wondered about his origins. 'Rabino' sounded Italian but there were rumours that he was Iranian. His English was perfect, without the pedantic accuracy which often betrays the cultured foreigner.
All my letters home were liable to censorship but I knew that the English radio and newspapers would tell Minna the bare facts about the Darlan affair and I knew her good sense would enable her to 'read between the lines'. But January advanced without a word from her. My worries increased.
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