the french attacked the americans in world war II -- 4/17/18

Today's selection -- from Citizens of London by Lynne Olson. When it landed its soldiers in North Africa in late 1942, the U.S. was taking one of its first major combat initiatives of World War II. To its surprise, the French troops stationed there attacked the American troops:

"On November 8, 1942, ... some thirty-three thousand American and British troops poured onto the beaches of North Africa. From the first mo­ments of [this] Torch operation, the inexperience of both planners and troops was glaringly evident. At Casablanca, more than half the land­ing craft and light tanks sank or foundered in the pounding surf. Many soldiers had no idea what to do when they first got off their ships. General Lucian Truscott, the commander of forces landing at a site north of Casablanca, recalled that 'men wandered about aimlessly, hopelessly lost ... swearing at each other.'

"Nothing, including the French response to the landings, went as planned. Roosevelt's conviction that French troops would welcome the American invaders had been based in large part on intelligence from a network of amateur U.S. spies installed in North Africa before the United States entered the war. In a secret deal with Vichy in March 1941, Roosevelt had unfrozen French funds in the United States in ex­change for stationing twelve American vice consuls -- i.e., intelligence agents -- throughout the region. The twelve were hardly professional operatives -- they included a winemaker and a Coca-Cola salesman­ and German military intelligence, which knew all about them, con­cluded: 'We can only congratulate ourselves on the selection of this group of enemy agents who will give us no trouble.'

From left, front row: Admiral Darlan, Adm. Sir Andrew Browne Cunningham, General Eisenhower, and Henri Giraud with back turned.

"The vice consuls assured the White House that the French army would put up only token resistance against American troops. In turn, the troops were assured that the French would greet the invaders 'with brass bands.' In fact, the French fought back fiercely at almost every landing site, with the sharpest resistance aimed at the all-American force at Casablanca. An American major later told the War Depart­ment that his 'officers as well as men were absolutely dumbfounded at their first taste of battle.' Lucian Truscott noted: 'As far as I could see along the beach, there was chaos.' In the view of a disgusted Patton, the Americans would never even have reached the beaches if they had been fighting Germans instead of the French.

"Making matters worse, the French military refused to accept the man handpicked by the Roosevelt administration to make peace in North Africa and become the region's new leader. General Henri Gi­raud, who had been captured by the Germans in 1940 before France capitulated, had recently escaped from a prison fortress in Germany and made his way to Vichy. Viewing Giraud as an alternative to both de Gaulle and Petain, U.S. officials persuaded him to cooperate with the invasion and smuggled him by submarine from France to Gibral­tar. Once there, however, Giraud insisted on taking command of the entire operation. When an astonished Eisenhower rejected his de­mand, he refused to accompany the first invasion troops. Ever hopeful, the Allies announced in a broadcast to North Africa that Giraud soon would assume leadership of French forces there. The announcement, as Eisenhower remembered, 'had no effect whatsoever' on the French; indeed, it was 'completely ignored.' The French rejection of Giraud, the Torch commander acknowledged, was 'a terrible blow to our ex­pectations.' In a cable to Roosevelt, he noted that the situation in North Africa did 'not even remotely resemble prior calculations.'

"At that point, Eisenhower's sole aim was to end the bloodshed and put his troops on the road to Tunisia. Anyone who helped him achieve that goal would have his support, even if it turned out -- as it did -- that his putative savior was one of Vichy's most shameless Nazi collabora­tors. He was Admiral Jean Darlan, commander of the Vichy armed forces and Petains right-hand man, who happened to be in Algiers visiting his desperately sick son at the time of the landings. Next to Pierre Laval, whom he succeeded as Petains deputy, Darlan was the most reviled of all Vichy officials. He had handed over Indochina to the Japanese, allowed the persecution of French Jews, ordered the mass arrests of Vichy opponents, and supplied Rommel's troops with food, trucks, and gas. At the time of the landings, Darlan, an ardent Anglo­phobe, had ordered French forces to fire on Allied troops.

"But for the apolitical Eisenhower, who had virtually no knowledge of internal French matters and little understanding of the national trauma afflicting the country, Darlan's reported transgressions were not germane. He offered the admiral a deal: in exchange for his engineer­ing a cease-fire, the Allies would appoint him high commissioner, or governor, of North Africa. At first, Darlan dragged his heels, agreeing to the plan and then reneging on it. It wasn't until he learned that the Germans had occupied Vichy France on November 11 that he ordered an armistice. With that, the fighting in North Africa finally ended.

"For much of the rest of the world, however, Darlan's transgressions were very much to the point. Eisenhower's deal, which Roosevelt ap­proved and to which Churchill reluctantly acquiesced, was greeted with a storm of protest around the globe, but particularly in the United States and Britain. 'In both our nations, Darlan is a deep-dyed villain,' Eisenhower conceded to his staff.

"To its critics, the deal betrayed a cynicism that undermined the lofty moral position of Allied leaders, chiefly Roosevelt. 'America had spoken such fine words, America had proclaimed such proud princi­ples, and now, at the very first temptation, America had to all appear­ances cast principle aside and struck a bargain with one of the most despicable of Hitler's foreign lackeys,' Wallace Carroll observed. As the military historian Rick Atkinson put it some sixty years later, 'a callow, clumsy army had arrived in North Africa with little notion of how to act as a world power.' "



Lynne Olson


Citizens of London: The Americans Who Stood with Britain in Its Darkest, Finest Hour


Random House Trade Paperback


Copyright 2010 by Lynne Olson


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