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A Merry (Murderous) Christmas in Algiers (1942)

by Sgt Len Scott RAPC

Contributed by 
Sgt Len Scott RAPC
People in story: 
Leonard Scott, Brigadier Francis Rabino, Admiral Jean-Francois Darlan
Location of story: 
Algiers
Background to story: 
Army
Article ID: 
A2641718
Contributed on: 
17 May 2004

Brigadier Francis Rabino (centre) with fellow senior officers in Algiers, 1942

You can read earlier parts of this story in:
Inside the War Office and Convoy to Algiers.

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.

The story continues in Mail from England - Joy and Grief in Algiers. See also Victory in Algiers

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These messages were added to this story by site members between June 2003 and January 2006. It is no longer possible to leave messages here. Find out more about the site contributors.

Message 1 - A Merry (Murderous) Christmas in Algiers

Posted on: 17 May 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Dear Len

I very much enjoyed reading your story about your time in Algiers, it is both well written and of historical interest.

May I respectfully comment on what you say about Darlan, and in particular this: "The Allied landings had been facilitated by Darlan ... 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."

Darlan did not facilitate the Allied landings. It was purely by chance that he was in Algiers, there was no prior agreement with the Americans. The military historian Rick Atkinson says of his presence "By a coincidence that would forever seem either contrived or divine, Darlan was in Algiers to attend to his son, Alain, who lay in the Hôpital Maillot so reduced by polio that his coffin had been ordered." I have quoted Atkinson because he is the most recent authority, but other historians concur. Darlon had an almost pathalogical hatred of the British and ceaselessly praised the German army. In a memorable phrase, Atkinson says of him "In a truncated nation of small men, Admiral Jean Louis Xavier Françoir Darlan stood amongst the smallest". He was always highly insulting, palming his bad manners off as speaking his mind. When the Americans sought his co-operation in Algiers for the rest of Torch, he said to them "I have known for a long time that the British are stupid, but I have always believed that the Americans were more intelligent. Apparently you have the same genius as the British for making massive blunders." He had only 7,000 troops in Algiers and he knew the game was up. But as to the French troops outside Algiers, where is co-operation was needed, he immediately formally divested himself of all power outside Algiers. Darlan initially said that he would only surrender French troops in North Africa with the agreement of Vichy, saying to General Clark "I can simply obey the orders of Pétain". After General Clark had literally blown his top with him (to which Darlan remarked to Robert Murphy, the top American diplomat in Algiers, "Would you mind suggesting to Major General Clark that I am a five-star admiral? He should stop talking to me like a lieutenant junior grade."), he did agree to co-operate and to surrender all French forces, but even here he wriggled out of it by giving the written order of surrender "in the name of the Marshall", an order which Marshall Pétain immediately repudiated and cancelled. It was at this point that the Allies turned to Giraud, much to the fury of De Gaule.

Best wishes,

Peter

 

Message 2 - A Merry (Murderous) Christmas in Algiers

Posted on: 18 May 2004 by Sgt Len Scott RAPC

Dear Peter.

Thank you for your message. I am glad you find my Algerian stories interesting. As for the Darlan affair the account I gave was that current among us at that time and should, perhaps, have been placed in the context of that period. I seem to
remember a TV programme some years ago which also put Darlan more at the
centre of things. History is always being revised and I am in no position
to dispute with military historian Atkinson. It may be best to delete the disputed paragraph. I look forward to further comments on my contributions.

Kind regards, Len.

 

Message 3 - A Merry (Murderous) Christmas in Algiers

Posted on: 18 May 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Dear Len

There is no need to delete. But the facts are as I have stated; I mentioned Rick Atkinson simply because he is the most recent historian to set out the account of Darlan's assassination - but he is far from being a revisionist historian. It was Darlan who assured Churchill, in 1940, that the French fleet would not fall into German hands, but then did not give the order for it to sail to either a neutral or a British port, giving his allegiance within days to Marshal Phillipe Pétain and Vichy.

General Mark Clark considered Darlan's death as "like the lancing of a troublesome boil". Churchill, said "Darlan's murder, however criminal, relieved the Allies of their embarrassment of working with him ... Girauld filled the gap. The path was cleared for the French forces now rallied in North and North-West Africa to unite with the Free French Movement round de Gaulle ..."

I look forward to reading more of your valuable eye witness accounts.

Best wishes,

Peter

Sources:
1. "An Army at Dawn - The War in North Africa, 1942-43" by R. Atkinson (Little, Brown, 2003), volume 1 of "The Liberation Trilogy".
2. "The Hinges of Fate", volume 4, published in 1951, of Churchill's "The Second World War".

 

Message 4 - A Merry (Murderous) Christmas in Algiers

Posted on: 19 May 2004 by Sgt Len Scott RAPC

Hi, Peter,

After some discussion with my father I've done a little editing on the paragraph in question to make it clear that his version was that current at the time, and mistaken. I hope this will achieve our aim of making clear what the general opinion was, without confusing people who don't know the real story.

My father is always glad to get a response to his writing, even if it's a correction of fact -- so thank you!

All the best

Allan Scott (on behalf of Len)

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