Prologue: How a Handful of Men Made a Difference
Three days after American and British forces landed on French North African shores, Winston Churchill celebrated Operation TORCH, the first real victory for the allies in World War II. He ventured: “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is perhaps the end of the beginning.”[i]
TORCH was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “great secret baby.”[ii] and the first joint major British-U.S. operation. The landings and what followed opened the Mediterranean roads leading to Rome and Berlin. For FDR’s “Twelve Apostles” – vice consuls assigned under Robert Murphy to prepare TORCH in Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia – the operation was the beginning of a long string of espionage, sabotage, and psychological warfare that the United States would carry out in World War II.
Indeed, some nineteen months before tens of thousands of American and British soldiers were thrown onto Mediterranean shores, FDR agents under Robert Murphy worked secretly among French colonials and Arab and Berber peoples to defeat Vichy and Axis agents in the casbahs and souks of Algiers, Casablanca, Oran, Rabat, Safi, and Tunis. When the Murphy men arrived, North Africa was a mosaic of nations and tribes – French colonials living amid the Babel of French, German, Italian, Arabic, and Berber languages with smatterings of Hebrew, Greek, and other ancient tongues. German and Italian agents, often security police from the Franco-German Armistice Commission installed after the French surrender, had made no significant progress to undermine French colonial rule in North Africa. The Arab peoples wouldn’t swallow Nazi-Fascist philosophy; and Mussolini had made a mess of things in Ethiopia.
Murphy’s original team – the twelve – were mostly well-mannered gentlemen with outsized personalities drawn from upper-class Ivy League gentry. They came from a generation of Americans that sought something greater and grander than they could find at home. All had studied abroad in their youth, five had volunteered to fight in World War I, and three had served in the American Field Service before America entered the Second World War. Two had served in the French Foreign Legion, and four were married. All had the veneer of an Ivy League education and European sophistication, and most could have passed for Frenchmen. Still the twelve were red, white, and blue Americans first and toujours; but they loved France for its culture, food and wine, conviviality and insouciance – an “art of living” that comes only when speaking the language fluently. Most were in France when the country fell to the German invasion and, like those at home, were disgusted and shocked at the capitulation of the French government under Marshal Philippe Pe;tain. When a chance came to serve in North Africa, they were itching to be actively involved in a war that America had yet to join; ready to seek glory, romance, escape, and a chance to get into the game.
As gifted amateurs, untrained in the clandestine arts, innocents to the world of dirty tricks, and forced to invent ways of psychological warfare, espionage, and sabotage they preceded Wild Bill Donovan’s COI-OSS operations. They were also the first organized U.S. spy team in World War II to operate under diplomatic cover – an avant-garde CIA.
TORCH was boldly conceived and executed by General Dwight D. Eisenhower. In the fall of 1942 massive flotillas embarked from U.S. and British ports, marking the first transoceanic amphibious operation and the first U.S. airborne operation in World War II.[iii] American, British, and French forces suffered heavy casualties during the TORCH fighting and in the events that followed.
With the defeat of Rommel’s desert armies, TORCH opened French North and West Africa to the Atlantic Mediterranean routes and Suez Canal. This led next to the liberation of Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica – toppling Mussolini from power and causing Italy to surrender. Rommel’s loss dealt a heavy blow to Hitler’s armies and prepared American troops for the invasion of France at Normandy two years later and the eventual defeat of Nazi Germany.[iv]
The courageous acts of FDR’s agents and their compatriots would change the course of the war. But their mistakes would cost dearly as they went about the business of learning the spy trade. Indeed, the TORCH enterprise was an enormous risk and might have ended in disaster. Yet despite the blundering and the errors of omission and commission the men Murphy finally chose to be in on the operation did make a difference and probably guaranteed its success.
Were these men heroes? We shall see. George Plimpton writes in the foreword to Gentlemen Volunteers, a book about WWI ambulance drivers, that “the word ‘volunteer’ is derived loosely from the Latin word voluntarius – namely, one who undertakes an action without external constraint and who thus performs of one’s own free will...a property that one often associates with heroism, especially if the cause is an honorable one.”[v]
Here then, are a handful of Christian gentlemen, eager to taste the exotic life of Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia in a Cecil B. de Mille-like adventure film with a cast of colonial Englishmen, refugee Poles, French colons, Arabs, and Berbers and with the production values found only on Mediterranean shores and desert outposts. We shall meet these men one by one.
But first there was Robert Daniel Murphy.[i] Churchill’s words, borrowed from a phrase spoken by Talleyrand in 1812 after the Battle of Borodino, were spoken at the Lord Mayor’s Day Luncheon in London on November 10, 1942. Justin Kaplan, ed., Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, Seventeenth Edition (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2002), 621.
[ii] Rick Atkinson, An Army at Dawn: The War in Africa, 1942-1943, Volume One of the Liberation Trilogy (New York: Henry Holt & Company, Inc., 2002), 31.
[iii] Atkinson, 159.
[iv] The TORCH allied assault forces as of November 8, 1941 numbered 107,453 allied troops, 107 ships carrying 9,911 vehicles, and 96,089 long tons of supplies. By December 1, 1941 the strength of allied forces landed in North Africa numbered 253,213 troops. A precise count of allied and French casualties between 8-11 November 1942 in the Algerian-French Moroccan campaign does not exist even today; the best estimate is 526 U.S. killed in action and 939 wounded or missing in action. The British reported allied losses at 2,225, including nearly 1,100 dead. The French may have suffered as many as 3,000 casualties, mostly at sea. George F. Howe, Northwest Africa: Seizing the Initiative in the West (Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, United States Army, 1993), 173 and Appendix A; and from VFW Magazine, Anniversary Issue, November 1992, 15.
[v] Arlen Hansen, Gentlemen Volunteers (New York: Arcade Publishing, 1996), jacket copy.