A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, December 24, 2012

A 70-Year-Old Cold Case: Assassination in Algiers

Today, Christmas Eve, marks the 70th anniversary of an assassination in Algiers in 1942 that still is veiled in mystery, speculation, and conspiracy theories: though there has never been any dispute about who pulled the trigger. And though set in an Arab country, these conspiracy theories are not the product of Arab coffeehouse gossip at all. All the players are European or American.

Christmas Eve, 1942:  only a few weeks after the Allied Operation Torch landings in French North Africa in November, the Allies have consolidated their hold on Morocco and Algeria, and are gearing up to battle the Germans for Tunisia. They had gained control of Vichy-controlled Morocco and Algeria in part by cutting deals with the local Vichy leadership and with Admiral Jean Louis Xavier François Darlan, former head of the French Navy and until the Torch landings Vice President of the Council in Vichy France, second only to Marshal Petain and Minister of Defense, Interior, and Foreign Affairs. By sheer chance Darlan had been visiting his ailing son in Algiers when the Allies landed, and he proceeded to maneuver to proclaim himself as High Commissioner of North Africa. In that capacity he won recognition from the Allied commander, General Eisenhower. Instead of becoming a prisoner of war, he found himself running the place with the Allies' blessing.  This infuriated the local French resistance, it infuriated Charles de Gaulle and the Free French, and it did not sit well at all with Winston Churchill and the British,who unlike the Americans had never recognized the Vichy regime.

Admiral Darlan
By Christmas the Germans had occupied the unoccupied, Vichy-run portions of France, but Darlan survived in North Africa thanks to his deal with the Americans. Actually, not quite until Christmas.

On the afternoon of Christmas Eve, a young 20-year-old French monarchist named Fernand Bonnier de la Chapelle waited in the corridor near Admiral Darlan's office until Darlan returned and shot him once in the face and once in the stomach.

That much everyone agrees upon. Bonnier de la Chapelle was arrested. The next day — Christmas Day — he was tried and convicted. The day after that, December 26, he was executed by a firing squad. He struck many people as confident he would be freed until close to his execution. Churchill's memoirs include the enigmatic comment, "He was surprised when they shot him."  Nothing at all suspicious about a 48-hour rush to execution, right?

Though no one doubts that Bonnier shot Darlan (there are no grassy knolls in this case), that's about all everyone agrees on. The clues and links can be read as pointing toward any of several countries/agencies behind the plot. That's not the only way in which it resembles a classic murder mystery: as in an Agatha Christie mystery, pretty much everybody had a convincing motive to remove Darlan. (Perhaps, like Murder on the Orient Express, everybody did it? But Hercule Poirot has yet to show up with the solution after seven decades.)

I have no solution to offer and there are book-length recitations of the evidence, so I'll just give a few examples of the confusing clues.

Let's start with his fellow French. As suspects go, the Gaullists seem to be the most likely to have been involved though perhaps with help from their allies. Several key Gaullist figures had links to Bonnier, and those who drove him to the scene of the shooting. And the Gaullists certainly saw Darlan as the devil incarnate.

On the other hand, General Henri Giraud, de Gaulle's rival and the favorite of the Americans, would succeed Darlan on his death as the French leader in North Africa. And Bonnier was a member of a movement called the Corps Franc d'Afrique, a Giraudist resistance movement in North Africa. And of course Vichy itself and their Nazi allies were none too happy with Darlan's cooperation with Eisenhower.

While Darlan's deal with the Americans, with Eisenhower and General Mark Clark, would seem to make the US the least likely culprit, the US was never comfortable with Darlan. The French and the British seem more likely, but there's the awkward fact that the gun used by Bonnier to shoot Darlan had belonged to a local OSS agent, the OSS being the World War II predecessor of the CIA. He had been Bonnier's superior during a training camp run jointly by the OSS and the British, and though he insisted his gun had been stolen, some claim he was near the palace when Darlan was shot. Just to show how bizarre this story is, the OSS agent in question was the famous physical anthropologist Carleton S. Coon. The OSS chief for North Africa, Col. Bill Eddy, moved Coon out of Algiers in disguise. Of course, another agency might have stolen the gun to point the finger at the Americans. Coon's anthropological views on race or out of fashion today, but he was a highly respected academic in his lifetime.

So far, the French look likely suspects, particularly the Gaullists, and the Americans less motivated but with some suspicious links. That brings us to the British. De Gaulle was the chosen Frenchman of the British, not the Americans, who were promoting Giraud. Churchill never liked the Darlan deal. If anybody was involved in this (likely along with the Free French), the British are a popular choice with many conspiracy theorists. In fact, there's a story (spread by the French) that after Darlan was shot, his last words were "The British have finally done for me."

Ah: but which British? At one point Bonnier, as part of the Corps Franc d'Afrique, had received some weapons training from Britain's Special Operations Executive (SOE), Churchill's own specially created special operations force. So the SOE had links with Bonnier, did Churchill's bidding, and were the likeliest agency for such an operation. (Not to make this too easy, though: as noted earlier the training camp was jointly run with the OSS.)

But the continuing puzzle of this story is that just when you think it's too confusing, another complication turns up. The SOE had a rivalry going with Britain's traditional overseas intelligence agency, the Secret Intelligence Service or MI6. The head of MI6 at the time was the legendary Sir Stewart Menzies, though he was not legendary at the time, when he was known only as "C." If this reminds you of something, it's probably because a young Royal Navy Commander named Ian Fleming, who worked under Menzies, later invented a spy called James Bond who worked for an MI6 chief known only as "M " and seemingly based on Menzies (whose real name, curiously, begins with "M"). Menzies remains a legendary spymaster. He is known to have been fiercely hostile to Darlan, as revealed in Alexander Cadogan's diaries..

Now, "C" rarely left England during the war, and usually not at holidays, and generally for operational reasons. Yet at Christmastime 1942 he made a secret visit (so secret his own Personal Assistant returned from the holidays without realizing his boss had been gone) to, of all, places, Algiers. (Ostensibly, to meet a French counterpart on Christmas Eve.) He was lunching in Algiers (with multiple witnesses, of course) when Darlan was killed. If MI6 was responsible, the fingerprints seeming to implicate OSS and SOE could be meant as a diversion. Or maybe all were involved.

Rivals the sort of conspiracy theories we often hear in the Middle East, doesn't it? Perhaps it really was all of the suspects, as in Murder on the Orient Express. Other than the drum-head conviction and immediate execution of Bonnier, basically nobody else was ever punished. And if any of the people mentioned in this account spent a moment  mourning Admiral Darlan, it doesn't seem to appear in the record.

Again, I'm not pointing the finger anywhere. After 70 years, if there is a paper trail somewhere, it is buried mighty deep. (And Menzies was known for not leaving paper trails.)

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