“Eisenhower and Clark, the Struggle for North Africa and the Mediterranean” 7-8-2008


Eisenhower and Clark

“The Struggle over North Africa and the Mediterranean”


Richard J. Garfunkel

July 8, 2008



In General Eisenhower’s chronicle, Crusade in Europe, about his actions, before and during his command of SHAEF, he does not mention either the February 18, 1943, letter he sent to Lt. General Mark Wayne Clark, or really anything in the past that would reflect on its meaning. Of course all of this begins with Clark’s brave action of landing in Algiers to meet with the French leadership, Vichy and non-Vichy before our invasion of French North Africa. (See the attachment, showing the actual letter, which is in the possession of fellow collector and correspondent, Mr. Gary Schulze.)


In Martin Blumenson’s book, Mark Clark, the Last of the Great WWII Commanders, he talks of Clark’s farewell note to his wife on October 18, 1942. “Darling sweetheart, I am leaving in 20 minutes on a mission which is extremely hazardous, but one I should do and one which I volunteered to do…if I succeed and return, I will have done great things for my country and the Allied cause. Of course you know my life is dedicated to military service, and now the opportunity has come for that service. If I do not return, know, I loved you and our Bill and Ann more dearly than I could ever write. You have been an angel to me, and I owe everything to you. God bless you all and keep you. My devoted love to my mother and yours, I love you Wayne. (This was handed to Jack Beardwood who had instructions to deliver it if he did not return.)


General de Corps Armee Charles Mast, the anti-Vichy Chief of Staff of French forces in Algiers, who with four civilians (known collectively as the “Five”) had met earlier with Robert Murphy, from our State Department, who was dressed in mufti as an American field grade army officer. As a result of this meeting, an emissary of Admiral Jean Francois Darlan, who was next in succession in the Vichy government to Marshal Petain, approached Murphy. Darlan, who was despised by most Frenchmen as a collaborator with the Nazis, had posed a choice to Murphy. The choice was that he get closer to the Germans or join the Allies. According to Charles MacDonald in his book The Mighty Endeavor, “ If he were afforded guarantees of American aid, Darlan might switch, bringing with him the French fleet.”


Therefore it was up to then Brigadier General Mark W. Clark to finish the negotiations with the French, who were split between different factions led by Darlan, Mast and General Henri Giraud. It was left to Giraud, by the “Five,” to have him meet with Clark. They proposed to have Giraud rendezvous in a villa near the Mediterranean, with a landing party, led by General Clark, who arrived in small rowboats from an American submarine based in Gibraltar. Eventually Clark had to sort out all the machinations and internecine politics of the French High Command from Petain to Laval and down to the leadership of Darlan in North Africa. Most people give Clark high marks for his dealings with the fratricidal French. He was firm with both Darlan, and the other disparate factions in the French Army in Algeria, as he had attempted to bring them into line with the Allies. Even though he, Eisenhower and the Allied High Command, Roosevelt and Churchill, did not like to deal with Darlan, they realized, at the time, it was most expedient. After difficult, and threatening negotiations rife with bluff, bluster, and threats, Clark and his party returned back to the submarine. The trip was extremely difficult in the choppy waters and all of the boats, except Clark’s had capsized at least once. They were battered and bruised, their cloths had been lost and all of their equipment, arms and much of their personal gear was lost in the effort. (Of course, eventually the invasion of North Africa would proceed, and the French, who initially resisted with their fleet at anchor, and their poorly under-armed troops, would surrender. That was the plan!)


Meanwhile, the so-called “Deal,” collapsed very quickly, and in fact, Darlan had contributed very little. According to MacDonald, “he had sanctioned a ceasefire in Algiers only when military defeat was inevitable, and he had delayed the overall ceasefire until it was no longer needed at Oran; it probably had little to do with the armistice in Morocco, and it accomplished almost nothing in Tunisia. And Darlan did not deliver the French fleet.”  The “Darlan Deal” never promised French resistance against the Germans, and on November 27, seventy-three ships of their fleet, at that time the fourth largest in the world, was scuttled at their naval base in Toulon. The story of Admiral Darlan, and the negotiation with him was fraught with political problems right from the start. He had to be handled by kid gloves almost immediately.  According to the renown military historian and expert, Sir Basil Liddell Hart, in his History of the Second World War,  “that Eisenhower came to realize, like Clark, that Darlan was the only man who could bring the French around to the Allied side, and he remembered Churchill’s remark to him just before he left London: ‘If I could meet with Darlan, much as I hate him, I would gratefully crawl on my hands and knees for a mile if by doing so I could get him to bring that fleet of his into the circle of the Allied forces’’” But even though a “deal” with Darlan was supported by Roosevelt and Churchill, nothing could remove the sinister pro-Nazi image of the Admiral. The press in both America and Britain excoriated any contact with Darlan, and the fact that de Gualle and his supporters in London were also very critical, did not make matters better. Roosevelt sought to calm the storm of public and press indignation by a open statement in which he called the arrangement with Darlan, according to Hart, “is only a temporary expedient, justified solely by the stress of battle.” Moreover, in an off-the-record press conference, he described it as an application of an old proverb of the Orthodox Church: “My children, it is permitted you in time of grave danger to walk with the devil until you have crossed the bridge.” Of course this statement, among others, did not make the situation easier, and the French forces in North Africa, both loyal and disloyal to Darlan were disappointed. They all, in their own way and for their own reasons, wanted to make the best deal with the Allies and weren’t happy with either FDR’s or Churchill’s lukewarm backing of the work Clark, Murphy and others did with Darlan. Aside from all the bitterness and animus, a deal was made with Clark for co-operative action. He eased the way for the West African port of Dakar, along with French controlled airbases, to be available for the Allies. For the Allies, and all who were involved, the issue of Admiral Darlan was solved on Christmas Eve. A fanatical young man, Bonnier de la Chapelle, a member of the Royalist and Gaullist circle, who was virulently opposed to any deal with Darlan, assassinated him. Churchill later commented in his memoirs: “Darlan’s murder, however criminal, relieved the Allies of their embarrassment in working with him, and at the same time left them with all of the advantages he had been able to bestow during the vital hours of the Allied landings.” Chapelle was immediately arrested, court-martialed on de General Giraud’s orders, and quickly executed.  


In retrospect, General Clark’s negotiations with Darlan and the French forces in North Africa, reflected tact, strength and brilliance. He certainly wasn’t weak with the French. According to Robert Murphy, the American diplomat in North Africa, during those crucial days, said in his book, Diplomat Among Warriors, “Clark did not pretend to understand French politics, so he found it easy to hold unwavering to an oversimplified view of French-American relations, and to ride roughshod over all delaying tactics.”  In his communication with Eisenhower in his first days in Algiers, he used a personal code for describing any or all, French officers. In his letters he used the acronym, “YBSOB,” which stood for “yellow-bellied son-of-bitch.” According to Murphy, this was “applied by Clark, at one time or another, to most French officers with whom Clark conferred.” Clark would use table-thumping and colorful language, which many of the French officers could easily understand.  Murphy recalled a time when he was escorting Darlan to his car, and the Admiral paused to speak. He said to me, “Could I ask a favor? Would you mind suggesting to Major General Clark that I am a five-star Admiral? He should stop talking to me like a lieutenant junior grade.”  Murphy repeated this to Clark, who took it in good spirit.


Omar Bradley, in his biography, A General’s Story, written with historian Clay Blair, both Secretary of War Stimson and General George Marshall vehemently opposed Churchill and FDR’s support for the landings in North Africa. Obviously they were overruled and though they felt the effort was peripheral and a sinkhole with no bottom for troops and treasure, they wound up being wrong. Strategically both FDR and Churchill understood that the Russians wanted, and needed, a second front, and they both knew that a possible cross-Channel invasion was still two years away. The landings and the subsequent fighting in North Africa allowed American troops to get into the action, squeezing the German and remaining Italian forces between the British 8th Army coming across from Egypt, through Libya and into Tunisia. It was finally in Tunisia, despite a number of American problems, especially their bad beating at the Kasserine Pass, where the German Army surrendered en masse. During the setup for this whole operation back in Louisiana, General Leslie McNair’s chief of staff, Mark Clark, who because of McNair’s poor hearing, became an important liaison between him and Eisenhower. Marshall who became quite impressed with Clark’s skills promoted him from Lt. Colonel to Brigadier General and asked him who he thought was the best suited for the job of war plans head, he replied with gusto, “I can give you one name and nine dittos.” Clark’s choice was Eisenhower.


Of course, Clark did want command, and he pressed Eisenhower for a battle mission. According to Blumenson, “As Eisenhower recalled, Clark and some of his staff began to ‘plague’ him for action. They were most unhappy… and Eisenhower assured Clark of his eventual participation in a major operation.” Therefore, Blumenson quotes part of the letter of September 18th, “You will never know how close I came within the past few days when the pressure was on me was very, very drastic indeed to call upon you once more to come and help out when I found it impossible to be in three distinct places at once. There is no one whom I depend on more.” Blumenson leaves out the part where Eisenhower gently chastises him for doubting him, over what I believe is his (Eisenhower’s) promise of command. I assume his frank talk was about Clark and his staff’s protestations about action. Eisenhower, on one hand, feels that he needs Clark because he trusts his brains, loyalty and bravery. But on the other hand, he must balance the needs of his other commanders like Patton and now Bradley, so they get their share of the action. He also understands in his statement that he is drawn in three different directions, and needs, with confidence, others to share his increasing burden. Eventually Eisenhower would send General Ernie Harmon, a tough, no-nonsense soldier to bolster the faltering General Fredendall and his II Corp in Tunisia. The Americans, and their week French allies, were driven back by a Rommel counteract, that pushed them fifty miles back to the Kasserine Pass, and threatened to throw the allies out of Tunisia. In the wake of that disastrous retreat, Eisenhower relieved Fredendall, replaced him with Patton and had Bradley as his deputy corps commander. They quickly turned the situation on the ground around. With decisive action, the battle line was re-enforced, the initiative was regained, and Patton passed the corps command to Bradley. Patton returned to his job planning for operation “Husky,” the invasion of Sicily. It was in this atmosphere that Eisenhower felt his greatest pressure and self-doubt. Eventually combat in Tunisia would be over in May of 1943, as Bradley took Bizerte.


In retrospect, Bradley was critical of Eisenhower’s inability to extemporize, and to master a quick stroke in Sicily after the unexpected sudden collapse of German forces in Tunisia. Marshall also so that flaw in Ike’s planning ability. But the lack of landing craft and his inability to talk both Harold Alexander and Monty (Bernard Law Montgomery) into moving up their timetables doomed a quick strike into Sicily.


Ironically Clark was also not happy with the forth-coming invasion of Sicily, and in his diary he summed up his thoughts, “This coming move in the Mediterranean (Sicily) will be no great move. In reality, we will get no place by doing it and the result will not be commensurate with the effort and losses involved.” In the long run, Clark wanted to prepare for the continent, and did that only mean France?  Ironically, Husky, the code name for Sicily went decently well. The quick history is that the British who were give the short route up the eastern coast of the island from Syracuse to Messina, faced heavy resistance. Wherein Patton wheeled his way up the western end of the island, using enveloping actions with landing craft and got to Messina and the straits before the British. The failure for the Allies was of course, the escape of the bulk of the German army to Italy, in their own version of Dunkerque evacuation. Maybe Clark was right in his assessment at the time, but it seemed logical to conquer Sicily first, establish air bases and a port facility on the European side of the Mediterranean and then proceed on to Italy. It was in Italy where bloody and prolonged fighting under Clark’s command would later seem unnecessary to both the foot soldier and later historians.


With regards to Clark commanding the Firth Army, Bradley said the following, “I had serious reservations about him personally (he had not yet commanded large-scale forces in combat in World War II). He seemed false somehow, too eager to impress, too hungry for the limelight, promotions and personal publicity. Patton didn’t trust him either. He thought Clark ‘too damned slick’ and ‘more preoccupied with bettering his own future than winning the war,’” In fact, Bradley stated, that “Eisenhower told him that if ‘should anything happen’ to Clark, I would replace him as the Fifth Army commander.” Was Eisenhower losing faith in Clark? Was Eisenhower affected by the carping of Patton? Was Eisenhower worried about Clark’s background? In an interesting exchange reported by Blumenson, in the wake of Clark’s appointment to be second in command to “Operation Torch,” the invasion of North Africa, Patton met Eisenhower in Gibraltar, and Patton reported to his diary, they talked of “trivial things.” Maybe Patton was experiencing Eisenhower’s attempt at bonding after Patton’s obvious disappointment. Patton wrote, “He asked me if Clark was a Jew, I said at least one quarter, probably one half.” Of course, according to Blumenson it was idle talk. Eisenhower was bored in his cave-like headquarters in the “Rock” while Clark ran the show in Algiers. Of course because of Marshall’s directive that personal stories of heroism be immediately revealed to the press, Clark’s personal bravery made him an instant national icon.


Of course Patton’s angst over the Clark’s command and efforts in North Africa, and his selection as the commander of the new Fifth Army, knew no bounds. He stated, “I doubt the wisdom of it. (Clark’s appointment!) Patton later wrote in his diary that evening “He (Clark) may be too intrusive.”  What probably distrusted, according to Blumenson, was Clark’s lack of combat and command experience, his youth (he was later to be the youngest Lt. General, age 46, in the Army’s history), his brashness and his quick climb to equal rank with the older Patton. Of course by being ”intrusive,” Patton meant “pushy” and not our kind, what the French called in a more general sense “arriviste,” a person who sought to get ahead by any means. This was a guarded intimation of anti-Semitism.


All, in all, Patton was very disappointed over his lack of overall command opportunities. The slapping incidents in Sicily, his constant carping, his loose talk, all disturbed and worried Eisenhower. He had great confidence in Clark and therefore turned over the training, development and leadership of the Fifth Army to him. Bradley went on to great success in Europe as the American counterpart to Field Marshall Montgomery. Patton was given the command of a phony army in East Anglia. This was to deceive the Germans into thinking that the long-anticipated invasion would come across from Dover to Pas de Calais. Patton was quite bitter over this assignment, and thought that he would eventually miss “the big show.” But events have their strange way of turning, and Patton eventually was given command of the Third Army. His spectacular race across France, and his northern pivot to relieve Bastogne was legendary. On the other hand, Montgomery’s and Bradley’s inability to trap the whole German army at the Falaise Gap, along with later mistakes at Market-Garden and the Rhine River helped embellish Patton’s comparative work. Clark would eventually liberate Rome, after a long struggle and disappointments at Cassino, the Rapido River and the failure to exploit the Anzio landings. The fog of war blinds even the clearest vision and the best drawn plans of action.

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