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Exile, Espionage, and the Battle for North Africa in World War II
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In November 1942, as a part of Operation Torch, 33,000 American soldiers sailed undetected across the Atlantic and stormed the beaches of French Morocco. Seventy-four hours later, the Americans controlled the country and one of the most valuable wartime ports: Casablanca.
In the years preceding, Casablanca had evolved from an exotic travel destination to a key military target after France’s surrender to Germany. Jewish refugees from Europe poured in, hoping to obtain visas and passage to the United States and beyond. Nazi agents and collaborators infiltrated the city in search of power and loyalty. The resistance was not far behind, as shopkeepers, celebrities, former French Foreign Legionnaires, and disgruntled bureaucrats formed a network of Allied spies. But once in American hands, Casablanca became a crucial logistical hub in the fight against Germany — and the site of Roosevelt and Churchill’s demand for “unconditional surrender.”
Rife with rogue soldiers, power grabs, and diplomatic intrigue, Destination Casablanca is the riveting and untold story of this glamorous city–memorialized in the classic film that was rush-released in 1942 to capitalize on the drama that was unfolding in North Africa at the heart of World War II.
Collaboration and Resistance
The Faraway War
BEFORE THEY WENT TO BED ON SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 10, 1939, Moroccans moved their clocks and watches forward an hour. When dawn broke on Monday morning, their country would operate on the same schedule as France.1 The synchronizing of clocks attested to the power of France over Morocco and also to the importance of Morocco to France’s impending fight with Nazi Germany.
Ten days earlier, on September 1, 1939, German tanks had rolled into Poland and plunged Europe into war. With greater mobility and superior numbers of troops and armor, the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe quickly overpowered Poland’s valiant, if futile, defense. Taking only what they could carry, more than 200,000 Poles became refugees, fleeing to Lithuania, Romania, Hungary, and France. The Polish government took flight too, heading first to Romania and then, like so many of its people, to France.
On September 3, France and Britain honored their pledge to come to Poland’s aid and declared war on Germany. Rather than immediately launching an attack, they adopted a defensive posture that aimed to avoid fighting until the balance of power shifted in their favor. French and British officials believed a “long-war strategy” would allow them to fully mobilize their armed forces and weaken Germany through economic warfare.2 Years of strategic estimates and planning convinced French and British military planners that they could prevail against Germany if they had time to prepare their forces.3
The decision to go on the defensive yielded the curious illusion of war declared but not fought. The French called it la drôle de guerre—the Phoney War—the war that wasn’t quite a war. For eight months, western Europe lived in suspended animation. All signs pointed to Adolph Hitler’s turning west in the spring, after the winter snows melted and the ground grew hard enough for men and tanks to march forward. Until then, they waited and prepared.
AS A COLONY OF France, Morocco was expected to contribute to the French war effort by harnessing its economy and providing men to fight for the French army.
The campaign to make Moroccans embrace France’s fight as their own began immediately. Mobilization for war began at 12:01 a.m. on September 2.4 Two days later, on September 4, in Casablanca’s mosques and elsewhere, imams read a letter from Sidi Mohammed ben Yusef, the sultan of Morocco, expressing his support for France in her battle with Germany: “From this day forward until the banner of France and its allies is covered in glory, we owe them our unreserved support. We will drive no bargains about supplying them with our resources, we will stint them no sacrifice. We were joined to them in times of peace and plenty and it is only right that we should remain at their side during the trials that they are undergoing, from which they will emerge, we are convinced, both victorious and great.”5
With literacy low, let alone literacy in French, the most direct way for the sultan to reach his people remained the mosque. Within its walls, the sultan could speak directly to his people. The French, of course, approved his words.
Three weeks later, Sidi Mohammed again pledged his fidelity to France during a ceremony to honor Moulay Idriss, who founded of the Kingdom of Morocco in 788 and brought Islam to the people of the Maghreb. As the sultan uttered his pledge before Idriss’s tomb, General Charles Noguès, the current resident-general, stood beside him. By uttering those words next to Noguès for all the world to see, the sultan provided yet another demonstration of his commitment to France—this time camera ready and perfect for printing in the newspapers read by the Europeans who called French Morocco home. The story would also be read out loud in the cafés that populated Casablanca and every city and town, as Moroccan men came together to drink thick coffee, trade gossip, and escape their wives.6
In their own way, Sidi Mohammed and Noguès embodied the duality of French Morocco in 1939. In his snowy white robes with the hood pulled over his head, Sidi Mohammed looked younger than his thirty years. Not even the trim beard that framed his face did much to mature his boyish looks. The son of the previous sultan, Yusef ben Hassan, and his Turkish wife, Lalla Yaqut, Sidi Mohammed was reared in Morocco and privately educated by tutors. He ascended the throne in 1927 when only eighteen. The Moroccan families who backed his candidacy and the French officials who endorsed it believed they had picked a sultan whom they could manipulate to do their bidding. But from the beginning, Sidi Mohammed demonstrated backbone and spent the 1930s urging reforms. He also played coy with the nationalists who wanted to liberate Morocco from colonial rule, preferring to keep them at arm’s length rather than risk the ire of the French.7
General Charles Auguste Noguès, a handsome man of sixty-three years, symbolized the French colonial project. A graduate of the elite École polytechnique, Noguès chose a career in the army as an artillery officer. After working for Hubert Lyautey, the first resident-general of French Morocco, during the early years of his administration, Noguès distinguished himself in World War I, earning accolades for his leadership of the 17th Artillery Regiment. Marriage to Suzanne Delcassé, daughter of one of France’s most celebrated diplomats, provided both personal happiness and a boost to an already promising career. Noguès soon found himself as comfortable in the drawing rooms of Paris as in the palaces of Morocco’s pashas.
Noguès returned to Morocco in 1924, arriving in the middle of the Rif War, a bloody conflict between the Berber tribes of the Rif Mountains and Spain that spanned the early 1920s. When the conflict expanded to embroil the French, Noguès earned high marks from Moroccans for his defense of the ancient city of Fez. Offered the post of resident-general in 1936, he accepted after President Léon Blum convinced him that France would not export the domestic socialism of the Popular Front to Morocco.8
The sultan and Morocco’s elites welcomed Noguès. They saw in him an heir to Lyautey, who, while disposed to military order, understood the value of Moroccan institutions. Noguès also possessed a deep, abiding love for Morocco that permeated his dealings with its people.9 Noguès and Sidi Mohammed forged a strong relationship that allowed Noguès to carry out France’s policies with his support. Now, in the time of France’s need, the sultan would help rally his people to her aid.
ALONG WITH PUBLIC SUPPORT offered by the sultan, a series of dahirs, or decrees, designed to put Morocco on a war footing poured forth. While issued under the sultan’s signature, the dahirs were written by the Residency, the name given to the French administrative center in Rabat. Price controls were implemented, along with a ban on war profiteering. New regulations governing the distribution of food, drugs, commodities, and minerals appeared. For example, those who made or distributed sugar, butter, margarine, condensed milk, coffee, or green tea had to declare their stocks and log all their transactions. The government also had to approve all exports. The Residency intended to keep a close eye on the food supply. Shortages bred unhappiness among the people, which could lead to protests. The administration also wanted to make sure that only France or her allies acquired any minerals, phosphates, lead, and iron, useful for the production of war matériel.10
Financial transactions were restricted too. Capital could only be exported with permission of the government. Imports of all merchandise, except gold, were terminated.11 France extended currency measures to Morocco and its other colonies to protect the franc.12 Starting in January 1940, Moroccan residents with incomes below 50,000 francs paid an additional 2 percent income tax to help finance the war. Above 50,000 francs, it increased to 4 percent.13
The Protectorate could now seize the property of German nationals and German companies who did business in Morocco.14 It also banned all relations between people living in French Morocco and enemy nationals wherever they lived, along with anyone living either in Germany or its occupied territories. Anyone doing business with Germany or its territories could terminate contracts without legal penalties. Nothing could be imported from Germany. Anyone who supervised or was in possession of enemy property also had to report it within thirty days.15 The Protectorate’s intelligence service also began keeping close tabs on Germans and Italians in French Morocco, along with whom they met and what they said.16 They, of course, received a helping hand from concerned citizens.17
New controls imposed on communications made it easier to spy on the residents of French Morocco. All coded telegrams, except those sent by governments, were forbidden. Businesses that used codes to ward off industrial espionage or individuals who simply weren’t keen on clerks at the telegraph office knowing about their private affairs had few alternatives, particularly since their mail was subject to inspection as well. All telegrams also had to be written in French. On top of that, anyone wishing to send a telegram had to show it to the local authorities first. Telephone calls between cities within Morocco by private individuals were banned. Local calls also had to be conducted in French or the regional dialect.18
ON NOVEMBER 18, 1939, the throne room at the sultan’s palace in Rabat filled with men in their finest attire. The diplomatic corps dressed in their dark suits and perfectly starched shirts provided a stark contrast to the fine cloth of the snowy white robes worn by the Mahkzen, the sultan’s advisors. The officers of the French army and navy appeared gaudy beside them, their shoulders decked with gold and silver braid and chests heavy with enameled medals.
They had gathered to celebrate Throne Day (fête du trône), a commemoration begun in 1933 to recognize the day Sidi Mohammed became sultan. Originally organized by the nationalists to emphasize the centrality of the sultan to Morocco, the celebration grew in scope as the public’s interest increased. What started as a critique of French power in the early 1930s by Moroccan nationalists and a reminder of the country’s heritage had evolved into an elaborate Residency-sanctioned event.19
At the time of the celebration of Throne Day in 1939, the French had forced the nationalist movement underground and there were no rumblings of a resurgence. If any of its leaders thought about resuming their activities, Noguès made certain the new wartime regulations yielded stiffer penalties for challenging French authority.20
The throne room itself was a masterpiece of Moroccan decorative arts. Under foot lay marble tiles overlaid with plush rugs. Two colonnades, one on each side, ran the length of the room. Its double columns soared into arches carved with delicate geometric and botanical patterns. Mosaics rendered in blue, green, and white glass danced along the walls, while a chandelier of Venetian glass floated down from the ceiling. At the far end of the room sat a modest throne, a low-slung chair covered in velvet and adorned with carved legs painted in gold leaf.
On that day, the throne room also included a microphone for the first time. As part of the day’s festivities, the sultan and the resident-general would give a speech, which the newspaper then printed. Now, thanks to technology, listeners of Radio Maroc would be able to hear the sultan’s voice. Noguès spoke first, recalling the sultan’s trip to Lorraine during the summer, where he visited with Moroccan troops poised to defend France. He also praised the resolute attitude and loyalty of the Moroccan people. The sultan again expressed his fidelity to France and offered glowing praise of Noguès for his great knowledge and understanding of Islam and for his stewardship of Morocco in a time of crisis.21
As part of the day’s events, the sultan’s guards performed feats of marksmanship and displays of horsemanship on the grounds before the palace. The bold colors of the guards’ tunics, the polished hardware gleaming in the sun, and the elegant lines of their horses provided the pageantry that such a celebration demanded. Their gallant displays reflected a deep appreciation within Moroccan culture for military power and the prowess necessary to defend one’s territory and people.
France’s decision not to fight—but instead to play a waiting game against Germany—raised questions among the Moroccans about French military might. That worried Noguès, who knew that any sign of weakness would be noted, but he was a prisoner to Paris’s decisions. As France went, so went Morocco. He would provide the troops requested by military planners—eventually sending 47,000 Moroccans to France to help with her defense—and trust that France could weather the impending Nazi onslaught.22
IN THE FALL OF 1939, JOSEPHINE BAKER STEPPED ONTO A STAGE unlike any other she’d graced in her sizzling career. Hoping to improve the morale of the troops who manned the Maginot Line, the massive defensive structure that guarded France’s eastern border, the French high command had asked her to perform a series of shows. The bunkers and barracks were a far cry from the blazing lights of Paris’s Folies-Bergère or the Casino de Paris where Baker dazzled audiences with her graceful dancing, comedic timing, and barely-there costumes.1 Her shows gave the troops a reprieve from watching the German border and wondering when the Wehrmacht might strike. Instead, the men hooted and hollered as the thirty-three-year-old Baker sang and slinked her way through a series of French chansons.
Maurice Chevalier, who had made a career of musical comedy in Paris and Hollywood, joined Baker on the tour. The fifty-something Chevalier, sporting his trademark straw hat, insisted on going second, intending to finish the show in grand style. He didn’t count on Baker’s receiving calls for encore after encore, cutting into his performance time.2
The soldiers responded to Baker the same way Paris had ever since the ambitious African-American girl from St. Louis charmed the city with her comedic sensuality. After a hardscrabble childhood in St. Louis, Baker found her way to headline La revue nègre at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in 1925. The daring show, which featured Baker dancing in nothing but a feather skirt, set Paris talking—and it hadn’t stopped since. Parisian society also welcomed Baker, giving her a level of freedom and acclaim that her country of birth could barely imagine, let alone offer. She embraced it all: the men, the jewelry, the clothes, the grand houses. She sauntered down the Champs-Élysées with her pet cheetah on a leash. She even gave product endorsements. When Casablancans opened their newspapers and magazines, they saw ads for Bakerfix, a crème “to keep your hair supple, brilliant, and in place,” available at Casablanca’s finer salons.3
IN DECEMBER, BAKER AND Chevalier returned to the stage together at the Casino de Paris, the legendary red-velvet music hall in the ninth arrondissement. Rationing, curfews, travel permits, sandbags around monuments, sweethearts kissing loved ones farewell, and daily stories about war preparation dampened Paris’s joie de vivre. Inside the Casino de Paris, the halcyon days still reigned as people filled the theater to the rafters to see Paris-Londres, a revue celebrating Anglo-French friendship. The show—“a new spectacle of rhythm, charm, and beauty”—featured thirty-two “beautiful women” from Paris and London, along with performances by Chevalier, Baker, and Nita Raya. Chevalier opened the review with “Paris Will Always Be Paris,” while Baker closed the show with “Mon coeur est un oiseau des îles.” The sentimental song, in which she likens her heart a tropical bird, could melt even the hardest soldier’s heart.4
The opening-night performance of Paris-Londres raised money for charity, with Baker’s portion going to the French Red Cross.5 Baker participated in other charity shows, including one at the beginning of February 1940 with Edith Piaf, Alibert, and other music hall icons.6 During the day, Baker worked in a shelter on the Left Bank for homeless refugees, continuing a long-standing habit of helping those less fortunate than her. “My heart sank at the sight of those exiles, broken body and soul by defeat,” she wrote.7
Baker also began working for the Deuxième Bureau, the French intelligence service, after being recruited by Jacques Abtey, who sought “honorable correspondents” who could feed his organization information about what they heard and observed: who met whom, who had tense conversations in corners at parties, who struck up unusual friendships. In the aftermath of Germany’s invasion of Poland and its alliance with the Soviet Union, France’s security services became obsessed with Fifth Column threats. A theatrical agent, Daniel Marouani, suggested that Abtey consider using Baker, telling him, “She is more French than the French.” With her extensive social connections and adoring fans, Baker could be a trove of information.8
Abtey agreed to meet Baker at Beau Chêne, her home in the Paris suburb of Le Vésinet. There, instead of a starlet, he encountered a woman in a battered hat collecting snails from her garden to feed her ducks. The glamour came next, when Baker invited him to join her in the salon, where a white-jacket-clad servant poured them champagne before a roaring fire. “‘France made me what I am,’ she told him. ‘The Parisians gave me their hearts, and I am ready to give them my life.’” It also didn’t hurt Abtey’s cause that he sported Nordic good looks—“young, blond, athletic, bursting with life,” as Baker described him—and was exactly her type. Baker became both his lover and his student.9
“When I gazed deep into my own inner self, I realized that I would be incapable of functioning as a real spy,” wrote Baker. “But intelligence work was different. It seemed the perfect way to fight my war.”10 It didn’t take long for Baker to start passing along information gleaned at receptions at the Japanese and Italian embassies, parties she personally threw, and other affairs around Paris. “Sometimes,” Abtey said, “she would write along her arms, and in the palm of her hand, the things she heard. I told her this was dangerous, but she laughed. ‘Oh, nobody would think I’m a spy.’”11
AS A CELEBRITY AND an American, Baker lived a charmed life in Paris, even after the start of the war. That wasn’t the case for many of the refugees from eastern Europe who had sought sanctuary in Paris during the 1930s. In the weeks following the invasion of Poland, the Sûreté, the civilian police force, systematically made its way through Paris’s refugee community, rounding up writers, artists, and intellectuals. The same impulse that prompted Abtey to recruit Baker—a desire to know if there were any Fifth Column threats within France—led to the mass arrests. Left-wing exiles with Communist ties or sympathies fell under suspicion, even if they preached against the evils of fascism. French authorities feared the Soviets might use these fellow travelers to undermine the Third Republic from within.
For Hungarian-Jewish journalist and aspiring novelist Arthur Koestler, the knock on the door came as he finished his bath on the morning of October 2. He soon found himself at Roland Garros tennis stadium, which had been converted into a makeshift processing center for “undesirable aliens.” After nine days of sleeping on a tennis court strewn with straw and huddling under the bleachers, Koestler joined five hundred other prisoners at Le Vernet, an internment camp located southwest of Toulouse.12 The barbed wire camp was divided into three sections: “A” for those with a criminal record; “B” for political prisoners, and “C” for those who were simply undesirable. Koestler lodged in section C, hut 34.13
Even though the Sûreté could point to a thick file documenting his Communist ties, Koestler had publicly fallen out with the party in 1938. Having once seen communism as a positive, modernizing force, he became disenchanted with the Soviet Union after learning that his friends had been subjected to show trials and shot in their aftermath. The Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939 further sealed his rejection.14 Even though Koestler’s conversion was real—not some Fifth Column charade orchestrated by Moscow—as far as the French security services were concerned, his long-standing ties to Communists made him questionable.
Koestler lived a grim existence at Le Vernet, his days organized around twice-daily roll calls and manual labor. He was assigned latrine duty, carting foul-smelling waste bins over icy terrain down to the river Ariège.15 Care packages from friends supplemented the camp’s meager daily rations of eleven ounces of bread and watery beef broth. When the prisoners were ordered to suffer the indignity of having their heads shaved, an enraged Koestler insisted on taking the scissors to his lush head of hair first. “I’ve been wanting to do it ever since I was child!” he told the barber before letting him finish the shearing.16
A campaign by his estranged wife, Dorothee, and his girlfriend, Daphne Hardy (Koestler had a complicated love life), to mobilize his influential friends resulted in his release from Le Vernet in mid-January 1940. Those same friends, however, could not secure a visa for Koestler to go to Britain. “It was impulsive and unfair on the part of the Sûreté to clap Koestler into a camp. He is as anti-Nazi as can be, and his one desire is to help the Allied cause in any way he can,” wrote Harold Nicolson, head of Britain’s Ministry of Information, in a letter lobbying to let Koestler in.17 MI-5, Britain’s domestic security service, refused to budge. It regarded Koestler’s past membership with Friends of Socialist Unity, a group with ties to Marxist organizations intent on overthrowing imperialist Britain and France following Hitler’s defeat, as grounds for denying him entry.18
Upon his return to Paris, Koestler devoted his time to finishing a novel that he started before his internment and continued to work on while at Le Vernet, thanks to an act of kindness by the camp’s director. He channeled his anger, claustrophobia, and paranoia into the story of Rubashov, an old Bolshevik who finds himself arrested and put on trial for crimes he didn’t commit by the state he helped create. The novel offered a scathing indictment of the Soviet system, while capturing Koestler’s own psychological trauma from his imprisonment. As Koestler turned out pages in German, Hardy translated them into English. When they sent off the manuscript to Koestler’s publisher in London, they popped a bottle of champagne.
Darkness at Noon, which appeared in bookstores in the fall of 1940, would become one of the most important novels of the twentieth century and make Koestler’s international reputation.
Koestler mailed the book on May 1.
Hitler’s assault on western Europe began ten days later.19
The Sûreté would come again for Koestler, careening him on a path to Casablanca.
The Fall of France
IN MID-MAY 1940, CAPTAIN ANTOINE DE SAINT-EXUPÉRY, NOW thirty-nine years old, occupied the cockpit of a Potez 63 as it soared over northwestern France and Belgium. From a height of 33,000 feet, he followed streams of “ghastly whitish jelly” cutting through the landscape. Saint-Exupéry could only see the lines of smoke; he couldn’t see or feel the heat of the advancing flames as they licked and then consumed French villages and farms. Diving down close wasn’t the job of a reconnaissance pilot. His mission was to stay aloft and use the camera mounted on the plane to capture the progress of the war below.
Click. The German army advanced.
Click. The French army retreated.
Click. The refugees poured south, clogging the roads.
Saint-Exupéry had returned to uniform after the war erupted, wrangling an assignment with the French air force’s 2/33 Reconnaissance Group.1 It was an almost surreal assignment for a man who had become an international literary star only a year earlier, following the publication of Wind, Sand, and Stars. The memoir chronicled his time delivering mail for Aéropostale, the precursor to Air France, in northern Africa and South America. He portrayed flying as an almost mystical experience in which man and nature do battle in the air. Saint-Exupéry also captured the crude realities of flight in its formative years—controls freezing, engines cutting out, oxygen evaporating—and his near-death experience after crashing in the Sahara while attempting to break the speed record between Paris and Saigon.2
- "This is a book for historians, not film buffs... Digging deep into military archives in Britain, France and the U.S., Ms. Hindley has produced a scholarly narrative, weaving her way deftly among a large cast of characters, both familiar and unfamiliar... [An] authoritative and entertaining book."—Wall Street Journal
- "With its lively storytelling and impressive scholarship, Destination Casablanca succeeds as a thorough and highly engaging chronicle of the French Moroccan theater of war."—Washington Post
- "Compulsively readable, deeply engrossing new history... The charmed classic made in Hollywood's dream factories and the granular history recounted in Hindley's superb book fundamentally complement each other, entertaining and instructing us with their timeless tales of political intrigue, moral compromise, acts of courage and cowardice."—New Republic
- "A compelling read, packed with a Casablanca-worthy cast of characters and a penetrating look at the inside workings of Vichy France...History buffs will love the colorful stories and the grand geopolitical scheming. But there's enough action, intrigue, and adventure to make Destination Casablanca a perfect beach read."—Foreign Policy
- "Hindley delivers what could become the definitive account of Casablanca during World War II... The book should prove indispensable to scholars... Expertly researched and absorbing."—Kirkus Reviews
- "Hindley's warm, detailed writing style portrays the determination and resources that America brought to Casablanca, the continuing plight of refugees, the stirrings of Moroccan nationalism, and the moving saga of American singer Josephine Baker's support for a free France. Extensively researched, this account is rife with personal accounts, political and diplomatic insights, and vivid depictions of the military process. Recommended for history buffs who will relish the author's skilled presentation of a little-known theater in World War II."—Library Journal
- "Meredith Hindley deftly weaves together a history of the city of Casablanca and the events leading to the Anglo-American invasion and conquest of Northwest Africa in 1942-1943. Fascinating characters such as performer Josephine Baker and writer Arthur Koestler, along with a multitude of refugees, spies, and resistance fighters give her account unusual texture and variety. The military successes were capped by the Casablanca summit conference of Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. A great read."—Richard Breitman, Distinguished Professor Emeritus, American University
- "Here is an important, well-researched, and well-written account of a major aspect of World War II that is generally neglected in the existing literature. The reader is offered a convincing picture of the complicated interactions of the Americans and British with the supporters of Vichy and of the Free French, the local Muslim and Jewish leaders and population, and the agents of Germany. This reader does not know of any other successful unravelling of this theater's complexities."—Gerhard L. Weinberg, Professor Emeritus, University of North Carolina
- "A fulcrum of history-wartime Casablanca-jumps to life in Meredith Hindley's masterful page-turner. Spies, jazz legends, generals, traitors, writers, war icons and assassins light up a tale of high-stakes intrigue in one of the world's great exotic settings."—Jonathan W. Jordan, bestselling author of Brothers, Rivals, Victors: Eisenhower, Patton, Bradley and the Partnership that Drove the Allied Conquest in Europe
- "A fine and faithful work of historical reconstruction."—Booklist
- "A fascinating look into the reality of a complicated political situation that inspired a classic."—Shepherd Express
- "As entertaining as it is informative."—Galveston County Daily News
- "Exceptionally well researched, written, organized and presented, Destination Casablanca is a comprehensive and detailed military history that reads as smoothly and as inherently engaging as any novel."—Midwest Book Review
- On Sale
- Oct 10, 2017
- Page Count
- 512 pages