I’m not sure if I’ve been dreaming of a white Christmas, but we’re going to get one regardless. It started snowing early this morning and it has been floating down most of the day. It’s not been blizzard-like or anything, but we’ve probably got…I don’t know…five inches or so. But everyone has their lights on and, as the night takes over, it really looks pretty out there.
In 1942, there wasn’t snow in Algiers on Christmas Eve. Rick Atkinson describes the scene in An Army at Dawn. “Algiers on Christmas Eve was festive if not quite spiritual. The white houses spilling down the hills gleamed beneath a mild winter sun. Palm fronds stirred in the sea breeze. French mothers bustled from shop to shop in search of toys and sweets for their children. … Nipping from hidden casks of wine, troops washed their uniforms in gasoline and gave one another haircuts in preparation for midnight chapel services.”
Allied soldiers had landed back in November in an effort to drive the German and Italian military from North Africa and now, as Christmas loomed, everyone hoped for a day of peace and quiet. They wouldn’t get one.
Admiral Francois Darlan was not Algiers’ most popular resident. In fact, the Frenchman was one of the most reviled men in the war. When Pétain took over in France in 1940, Darlan became one of his deputies and promoted an alliance between Vichy and Nazi Germany, which made him an enemy of the Free French. When Darlan ordered part of the fleet to French North Africa, he gave assurances to British Prime Minister Churchill that it wouldn’t fall into German hands. But Darlan’s duplicity gave Churchill no comfort (he referred to Darlan as “a bad man with a narrow outlook and a shifty eye”), so he ordered the French fleet destroyed at Mers-el-Kebir.
When the Allies landed in North Africa, it was expected that Darlan would order his forces to cease fighting. But it took General Mark Clark three days (and numerous threats) to finally get Darlan to give the orders, which didn’t sit well Eisenhower. And then Darlan couldn’t convince Admiral Jean de Laborde to spirit much of the remaining French fleet out of Toulon, and that didn’t endear him to anyone.
So Darlan was pretty much hated by everyone on the Allied side of the fighting. He was now hated by the Germans (for surrendering Vichy forces in North Africa). And he was hated by pro-Vichy, pro-Nazi elements, who now considered him to be a traitor.
But only Fernand Bonnier de la Chapelle acted on his feelings. This 20-year-old son of a French journalist was an ardent anti-Vichyiste. Shortly after 3:00pm on December 24, 1942, he waited until Darlan returned to his office, where he promptly shot the Admiral twice in the head and once in the abdomen. Darlan would die a short time later on the operating table, and Chapelle would be executed the day after Christmas.
The reaction to Francois Darlan’s death was, well, I think Atkinson’s words are way better than mine, so let’s allow him to finish up. “While Mark Clark considered that Darlan’s death was ‘like the lancing of a troublesome boil,’ he moved quickly to score propaganda points by implying Axis complicity in the murder. An official AFHQ statement declared, ‘Complete order reigns in Algiers notwithstanding general indignation caused by the event.’ The suggestion that the citizenry might riot in pique at Darlan’s demise struck many as ludicrous. One correpsondent observed that he had ‘never seen happier faces in Algiers.’
It’s a bit morbid, but Christmas Eve in Algiers got a little better for a lot of people.
Recommended Reading: An Army at Dawn