By Alec de Montmorency. The “one man, one gun, no conspiracy” explanation of assassinations, used in the murders of President John F. Kennedy and Martin L. King, was nothing new. It was employed in the assassination of a leading French nationalist in Algeria during World War II. Following are the reminiscences of a journalist who knew Adm. Jean François Darlan and who questions the circumstances of his death.
Check any American or British encyclopedia and you’ll learn that French Adm. Jean François Darlan was gunned down in his Algiers headquarters on Christmas Eve 1942. The assassin was described as “a young French royalist named Bonnier de la Chapelle” who “apparently was enraged by the bargain that put Darlan in charge of civil affairs in French North Africa in return for his assistance during the Allied invasion.” Chapelle was executed, shutting his mouth forever. But questions remained.
I have been trying to supply some of the answers—and ask some of the questions that were neglected—for more than 50 years. My book, The Enigma of Admiral Darlan (E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., New York, 1943), was “medicated” before going to print by the Office of War Information in January of 1943. The U.S. government excised parts of the work to make it “better.”
There was nothing I could do at the time. I was in the United States under sufferance of the government. The editors at Dutton made it clear that Washington had the power to suppress the entire book and even the publishing house itself, if it wished.
Among the suppressed parts was why Adm. Darlan decided to leave for North Africa when he did. Here is the truth, a story reported nowhere else.
The voyage of Adm. Darlan to Algiers was decided on suddenly after a report from Senator Berard, the French ambassador in Rome, was received in Vichy. In it, the French envoy related how he had been called to the Vatican, together with other foreign envoys, including the British minister to the Holy See who later became the last Duke of Leeds and the German envoy, father of a future president of his country—Ernst von Weizsäcker.
Pope Pius XII had summoned them to hear a phonograph record of an address by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the people of French North Africa, inviting them to greet the U.S. forces who came to rescue them at the last moment from the Nazi invasion which had been due to start at any moment.
The situation explained itself. FDR had recorded his address several months earlier and sent a canned copy to Gibraltar to be broadcast at the opportune moment. How the Vatican acquired a copy was never revealed, but it was said in intelligence circles at the time that, “What the Vatican doesn’t know is hardly worth knowing.”
In the background was the continuing demand by Josef Stalin that the Allies open a second front to relieve German pressure on Russia, where it was costing him a million men a month to delay the advance of the German forces. The U.S. Army was not ready for such an operation; Winston Churchill had refused to go it alone with UK and Dominion forces.
And so it was decided to invade French North Africa to clear the southern sea route for supplies to the Soviet Union. With the information on the coming U.S.-led Allied invasion, Marshal Henri Philippe Petain, the leader of the French government at Vichy, and Adm. Darlan had held a council of war and it was decided that Darlan should go to French North Africa and take charge.
Churchill in those days had a secret envoy in Vichy, a French Canadian official who was attached to the Canadian Trade Commission in France; a man named Jean Dupuy. He had a diplomatic passport and was shuttling between Vichy and London, taking a train to Lisbon in neutral Portugal, and being picked up there by a British aircraft.
In Vichy he had access to the French defense establishment and he photocopied maps and documents mostly related to military installations in France, which would prove important to the Allied war effort against the Axis.
The relations between Darlan and Churchill had been greatly improved when the Frenchman learned that the British attack on the French fleet at Mers-El-Kebir, near Oran, had been engineered by agents of FDR, and included the Bolshevik spies in Whitehall. They had been instructed by their opposite numbers in the U.S. State Department. British Adm. Somerville had acted on orders from the Whitehall bunch.
Meanwhile, it was agreed between Petain and Darlan that the latter would offer Churchill a deal similar to the one struck between King Christian of Den mark and Hitler in the spring of 1940: Germany could militarily occupy Den mark without opposition, but would not interfere with Danish internal policy. Relative to France, the British Navy and other units, led by Admiral Cunningham, an old friend of Darlan, would be allowed into Algiers. In turn, Churchill would press FDR for a Danish-like deal, avoiding French bloodshed.
FDR refused. He had already made his deal with Stalin. Casablanca, the point at which the U.S. forces were to invade, was left out of the deal. It was there that Robert Murphy, Roosevelt’s man, who circulated freely through French North Africa as U.S. Consul General in France, had reached General Bethouart, who commanded the French army in Morocco. The latter was going to take power and facilitate the landing of U.S. forces.
But the French Navy had been tapping the telephones of important North African officials, military and civilian. The telephone intercepts proved useful. Through them, the French Navy had learned of the deal. Gen. Bethouart was arrested.
Presently a force of U.S. warships steamed toward Casablanca. It had been dispatched in conjunction with the U.S. deal with General Bethouart, and a broadcast of FDR’s message referred to above.
The U.S. naval force commander had been told that the deal had been made. All he had to do was to sail into Casablanca’s harbor, be welcomed by the French, and establish an American presence. The approaching Americans had no way of knowing that the French Navy wasn’t in on the deal, and had in fact arrested Gen. Bethouart. Darlan’s decision was to resist the Americans.
As the U.S. naval force approached, the French Navy was put on ready status. Jean Bart, an unfinished but heavily armored battleship of the Richelieu class, outmatched the ships in the U.S. squadron. Jean Bart was fitted with eight 15 inch guns and nine six inch guns; her full load displacement set for 47,500 tons.
Although unable to put to sea under her own power, the Jean Bart’s 15 inch, ton-and-a-half shells played havoc with the approaching U.S. ships. This proved quite a surprise to the U.S. commander who, after his ships took some hits, decided upon a strategic withdrawal until he could consult with headquarters. That short but memorable naval battle, a U.S. defeat administered by the Vichy French, is another story never told in history books. (Regarding this engagement, Allied headquarters stated on November 11th, “A major naval battle has taken place along the Moroccan coast between American and French naval units.” It further stated that the French resistance was mainly in the area of Casablanca and that “the French battleship Jean Bart directed heavy gunfire against units of the U.S. Navy until the battleship was set on fire by [dive] bombers or artillery fire.”-Ed.)
It was at this time that the Darlan-Clark Accords, crafted on the Danish model, were signed.
The Clark of the agreement was U.S. Gen. Mark Clark, a tall, stoop shouldered, long nosed, not-too-bright individual. Following the war Clark contacted the North American Newspaper Alliance (NANA) to serialize his diary of the war years. John Wheeler, the owner of NANA, knowing of my interest and involvement, let me have a look at the stuff. Two entries in it attracted my attention.
First was a deposition by the chief of police of Algiers in which he stated that Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower had OKed $38,000 to finance the assassination of Adm. Darlan. Second, according to Clark’s entries: “We put out a press release… that we would spare no effort in finding out whether it was the Nazis or the Fascists who did it [assassinated Darlan.—Ed.].”
The New York Times ran that wartime diary. I looked carefully through the series as printed, but could find no trace of those two entries. Evidently a government censor had put the kibosh on anything which would embarrass Ike and/or his aides for their part in the Darlan assassination.
Sometime in January of 1943 I met the chaplain of the battleship Richelieu, which had come to New York, while the cruiser Montcalm docked at Philadelphia. The gentleman had been the chaplain assigned to the battleship Bretagne when the Royal Navy fleet under Admiral Somerville had attacked the French fleet of Admiral Gensoul at Mers-el-Kebir, Algeria, sinking the disarmed Bretagne. The chaplain was ashore at the time. He told me he had officiated at the funeral services for 978 French sailors who perished on the Bretagne.
More to the point, he gave some interesting details regarding the murder of Adm. Darlan. It seems the chief of police of Algiers had come to see Darlan and had told him that Gen. Eisenhower had OKed $38,000 to finance the latter’s murder. With that information, Darlan had gone to see his old World War I friend, Admiral Cunningham. The latter told Darlan to write a letter to Churchill, giving the details of the plot, which Cunningham sent in British naval code to the UK’s wartime leader.
Upon receipt of this message, Churchill called a special secret session of the British Parliament—the only such event in the two wars—and read the French admiral’s letter to the assembled members. Then he said a few words about Darlan. He mentioned how, at the time of the evacuation of Dunkirk, he (Churchill) had agreed with the French government that the French and British combatants would board the evacuating sea craft arm-in-arm.
Then, at the last moment, Darlan had sent a supplemental order to Admiral Abrial, who was in charge of the evacuation. The order said that the British would embark first. As a result, more than two-thirds of the British forces were landed in England by the rescuing vessels and only one-seventh of their heroic French comrades.
The rescuing of the veteran British troops left Britain better prepared for the anticipated German attempt to invade the island kingdom. Churchill also added other praises of Darlan. Then, in a speech that reads like an obituary, Churchill also spoke of Gen. Charles De Gaulle, calling him a “mean character, devoured by ambition,” who had sent a team of assassination experts to North Africa to eliminate Darlan.
Churchill knew that Stalin demanded the removal of Darlan and that Roosevelt had acquiesced. This was the opinion of everyone in power in Vichy France and North Africa: Stalin ordered the hit; Roosevelt gave the OK and Churchill was unable to prevent it.
Following the playing of the canned speech of President Roosevelt to the French-speaking populace of North Africa, Pius XII told the assembled diplomats: “Note the accent of sincerity.” The Pope had come to admire FDR’s speaking power.
The aforementioned Robert Murphy, who had come to North Africa to prepare for the Allied invasion, was in charge of assassination arrangements. He had traveled to Spanish Morocco to see the Count of Paris, the French Pretender to the throne (who had many fanatical supporters in North Africa) and had inveigled him into the operation, bringing him back to Algiers. Thus, the “French royalist” description of the assassin was set in place.
The Count of Paris was the reputed son of the Duke de Guise. The Duchess of Guise had a lengthy disagreement with her husband, during which time she had an affair with a Comte de Bernys. Later, after Bernys was killed in a duel, she had become reconciled with her duke, who agreed to recognize her son and made him Count of Paris.
I got this story from Commandante (Major) Acuna y Guerra and his wife when I worked for the New York Times in Spain. Acuna y Guerra had been stationed in Larache, in Spanish Morocco, when that happened.
In regard to my original manuscript on Darlan: I had originally typed three copies and had submitted two of them to noted publishers in New York and had heard no more about them. The third and last one I gave to a friend who worked for a publisher. That was in late spring of 1942. In December 1942 Darlan was murdered. In January 1943 I got word from E.P. Dutton that they were interested, and I visited their offices.
George Acklom, the editor, who was about to retire, asked me if I could bring my story to an end—Darlan’s death. He said the publisher, a Mr. MacCrae, had been very impressed by the fact that the personnel had been eager to read my manuscript, even to using their lunch hour to do so.
Within 20 days I had the story finished, having added what the chaplain of the Richelieu told me, and we signed the contract: I was going to get $500 when the story went to the printers. I met Mr. MacCrae, who shook hands with me.
He soon fell ill and died the same year. In the interregnum, things happened: The Office of War Information (OWI) branch of the State Department intervened. Its people were less than diplomatic. They told E.P. Dutton’s editors that changes had to be made in my text to make it acceptable. They told the editors that I was evidently a French legitimist (i.e., nationalist) and had anti-democratic views and background. The OWI turned out to be wrongly named: It was really the Office of War Misinformation.
The OWI operated like a Mafia, in great secrecy. They did not want to do the alterations themselves, for fear that it would get out and precipitate a hue and cry about government censorship. There was, after all, freedom of the press in this country. Muzzling the press was something the Nazis and Fascists did. Benito Mussolini had been reported saying that, “the press will be free when the journalists who attack me are not.”
And in Germany, there was Paul-Joseph Goebbels, the minister of propaganda, but there was none of that in this country. What E.P. Dutton had to do, if they did not want to have their vital quota of paper (rationed due to the war) cut or eliminated entirely—a death warrant for a publishing house—was to hire someone to go over the manuscript and make the proper changes. They were to pay this person themselves, so as not to involve the U.S. government in such skullduggery.
They were very angry about what I had written about Eisenhower. They were grooming him as a future president. In reality, of course, Ike was a smooth and efficient desk officer and uniformed diplomat, only too willing to carry out any career advancing schemes hatched from above. Ike had been enlisted by FDR for a special job—to help carry out the president’s agreement with Stalin.
From a legal standpoint, I knew that the U.S. military, as a matter of wartime security, could remove the names of any U.S. warships from any description of war operations that was to be published in this country. They had already done so, removing the names of the USS Texas and other U.S. ships that I mentioned having been hit by the Jean Bart in the Battle of Casa blanca—a sea battle that, to most of the world, never occurred.
What the government did was illegal and I pointed that out to the editors at E.P. Dutton. I still believed the American propaganda about freedom of the press. I am no longer so naive.
After the war I learned that the Germans had a different spin on the Darlan assassination. According to Heinrich Müller, chief of the Gestapo, it was Churchill who arranged the assassination, even as he was crying crocodile tears for Darlan in the Parliament. As described in the remarkable book Ges tapo Chief by Gregory Douglas,1 which contains the edited transcript of the 1948 interrogation of Müller, Ger many intercepted a number of radiophone conversations between Roosevelt and Churchill. In one of those, Darlan is discussed.
FDR, in fact, accuses Churchill of the assassination in one of two conversations intercepted on July 29, 1943. Following is part of that transcript. “A” stands for “America,” meaning FDR, and “B” stands for “Britain,” meaning Churchill.
A: I had in mind that, should we find ourselves in agreement here [on what should be done about Benito Mussolini, that we could have him removed while still in their [the anti-Mussolini Italians. —Ed.] custody. At the same time, we could make very public de mands for his surrender for a trial. This would be a little smoother than the Darlan business…
B: I cannot but take exception to that reference, Franklin. That’s over and done with now and our people certainly are not at all interested in the well-justified fate of a notorious Nazi bootlicker.
A: I am well aware of your views on the Darlan business and I know you are aware of mine. It’s well known to my intelligence circles and elsewhere that you had the man murdered. We have the assassination weapon and the use of American shells has not been appreciated.2 The point here is that the death of Darlan has been laid at our doors, or at least yours, and all the denials have had very little effect. If Darlan had been shot by a Frenchman… while still in France, we would have no lingering doubts. If Mussolini were disposed of while still in Italian custody, there would never be a doubt as to who killed him. And this doubt would not arise later to disturb the Italian voters here…
In the mid-1950s, Life magazine published the previously mentioned secret speech given by Winston Churchill to the British Parliament about Adm. Darlan. In it (the Life version), there was a note by the editors of the magazine to the effect that, for “important reasons,” they were omitting one passage of the secret speech. It was what Churchill had said about De Gaulle.
According to what Adm. Cunningham had told Darlan—and the latter had repeated to the chaplain of the Richelieu—Churchill had informed Parliament about De Gaulle sending some of his subordinates to Algiers to help arrange the murder of Darlan. And he told the British legislators about the dangers to the Allied cause if Darlan were to be assassinated—plus what he thought of De Gaulle himself, as detailed above.
Some time later, at Casablanca, where FDR and Churchill met to decide who was going to lead the Free French forces, there were two official candidates for the job. One was Gen. Giraud, who had made a sensational escape from a Ger man fortress; the other was Gen. De Gaulle.
Adm. Darlan had remarked about Giraud, who was serving under him in Algiers, “brave as his saber and stupid as his boots.” De Gaulle was the front runner.
Then an aide of De Gaulle’s came on the scene, confronting Roosevelt and Churchill and telling them in tremolo voice:
“… De Gaulle… he’s a new Joan of Arc…”
Churchill remarked in weary tones:
“I know it, but I can’t get my damn bishops to burn him.”
FDR roared with delight. But De Gaulle had the inside track and won the job.
- Gestapo Chief: The 1948 Interrogation of Heinrich Müller by Gregory Douglas, hardback, 288 pages with index and notes, is available for $35.95, postage paid, from Liberty Library, 300 Independence Ave., SE, Washington, D.C. 20003.
- According to Douglas, Roosevelt supported the use of Vichy administrators for newly-captured, former French territory, but Churchill strongly supported De Gaulle, who was opposed to the use of Vichy people. The struggle between FDR and Churchill culminated in the murder of Darlan by a young Frenchman who, Douglas asserts, had been trained by the British. The murder weapon, a British-made Welrod pistol, came into American hands and was last known to be at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland.