Did the Allies Plot to Assassinate France’s Wartime Leader?

The conspirators behind the assassination of a hated former Vichy prime minister in WWII have never been unmasked. Were they French royalists? The English? Or the Americans?

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

It was Christmas night, 1942. For a man facing execution by firing squad, Fernand Bonnier de La Chapelle was in a jovial mood, almost elated. He reassured his mother in his final letter to her that the rifles were not going to be loaded. “They will not shoot me. I have liberated France,” the 20 year old blithely told his confessor. He insisted the agreed-upon plan was in place: “The bullets will be blank cartridges.” A doctor would declare him dead. He would slip away, to return at the appropriate time, a hero of the French nation. But the bullets that ripped into him the next morning were very real.

Bonnier de La Chapelle’s death in the bright Mediterranean sunshine lighting up Hussein-Dey Square in Algiers, French Algeria, was the second impossible entanglement for the Allies in their war against the Axis forces in North Africa solved by a bullet.

American-led forces had taken French North Africa, from Algeria to Morocco, in a few short days of battle against French armed forces, after an invasion starting on November 8. The Allies now held 1,200 miles of Mediterranean and Atlantic coastline. The worst fighting had taken place in Casablanca between warships, but even that had ended within three days. Algiers, the major city of the French territories, had fallen virtually without resistance, in large measure thanks to the work of United States’ secret agents, who, in the first American black operations prior to battlefield combat, had blunted the French military’s capacity to do battle and will to fight. [That story is told in parts one and two of this series,

The Allies, now including those same French armed forces they had just fought against, were finally in the war against the Italian and German armies in Tunisia. Once they fell, North Africa would serve as a springboard for the invasion of continental Europe, with a final target of the German Third Reich and Hitler in its capital city, Berlin.

However, in the heat of the North African invasion, codenamed Operation Torch, 40 days ago, nothing seemed certain. The Allies had encountered a 125,000-man French army and large, modern naval contingent. Although resistance had proved spotty, those soldiers and sailors who battled had fought to the death. Few countries took such immense pride in their military as the French did. Even if the invasion forces gained the beach head, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces General Dwight D. Eisenhower feared the French might continue to fight, giving the real Nazi enemy time to reinforce in Tunisia.

The U.S. and British armed forces came both to liberate French North Africa from control by the Vichy government, which was in collaboration with the Nazi occupiers of France, and to move as fast as possible to drive the German and Italian armies from North Africa—and win World War II. In the violence, chaos, and fog of the invasion, only one man, Admiral Jean Louis Xavier François Darlan, commander of all French armed forces, appeared able to bring about a full ceasefire.

But doing business with Darlan came with a high moral cost.

Short, roundfaced, nervous, and a career navy leader, as the commander of the powerful French fleet, Darlan was revered within the prewar French military hierarchy. In the dark days after the conquest of France, Darlan believed that Hitler would continue to dominate the continent. Since France’s capitulation in June 1940, he, like the head of state—the even grander Marshal Philippe Petain—saw collaboration with their nation’s Nazi occupiers as the way for France to sustain a measure of independent governance and hold some military force under its control—primarily in North Africa.

For a period, Darlan even served as prime minister of the Vichy government and continued as the feared head of Vichy’s military and foreign ministry. Darlan helped the repressive Vichy regime govern on behalf of the Nazis: He met with Hitler, supported German orders to capture and turn over anti-occupation forces, put in place Nazi-mandated anti-Jewish laws, and provided labor and support to Nazi forces. Darlan condemned as traitors the opponents of Vichy, such as Free France leader General Charles de Gaulle, who, as leader of the Free France forces, urged continued resistance from exile in London.

In the heat of the fight with U.S. forces for French North Africa, the Vichyist Darlan seemed to represent continuity for the French military and honor in battle. Eager to strike a deal to stop the fighting as fast as possible, Robert D. Murphy, the U.S. ambassador to Vichy France’s North African colonies, together with U.S. Army General Mark Clark negotiated a deal with Darlan. Admiral Darlan, Petain's heir apparent, was, according to Clark, “an opportunist,” but he “was the one man whose authority was recognized by all the French armed forces in North Africa. Military expediency dictated that we do business with Darlan.” Willing to do what it took, Clark claimed that he would have “deal[t] with the man who could do the job—whether it turned out to be Darlan or the Devil himself.”

Breaking U.S. ties with the Vichy regime of Marshal Petain, the so-called “Darlan Deal” designated Darlan high commissioner over French North Africa. (The bona fide anti-German General Henri Giraud was named commander in chief of French armed forces.) Above all, from the American perspective, Darlan could bring about an immediate ceasefire. The Franco-American war ended in three days and the Allies could turn to the real business of killing Nazis.

Eisenhower signed off on the arrangement with Darlan. He telegrammed Washington “that the agreement reached is only alternative to disorder and passive possibly active resistance, of which results would be disastrous.” However, for a general many considered a political wizard, he badly miscalculated the public relations nightmare that the Darlan Deal unleashed.

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Blowback was immediate. “We are fighting for international decency and Darlan is the antithesis of this,” declared the British Foreign Office. Deeply distressed, Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill feared local populations would despair, considering the Allies little better than the Germans. Churchill cabled President Franklin D. Roosevelt that “making terms with local Quislings,” a reference to Vidkun Quisling, the Norwegian leader who had cooperated with the Nazis, had inflicted “serious political injury … to our cause not only in France but throughout Europe.” Indeed, graffiti splashed on the walls of Algiers read “Death to the Traitor Darlan” and resistance cells refused to disband. Churchill pulled no punches: “Darlan has an odious record … now for the sake of power and office Darlan plays turn-coat.”

The American press, too, scalded the deal. Edward R. Murrow, who had done so much with his radio broadcasts from London during the Blitz to awaken slumbering American consciences to the war’s brutality, spat, “What the hell is that all about? Are we fighting Nazis or sleeping with them?”

Setting up offices in the Moorish, whitewashed summer palace in Algiers, Darlan did not change his Vichy fascist ways. He continued to enforce the harsh existing repressive measures, including keeping anti-Vichy opponents in prison, sending out secret police to capture fleeing foreign fighters, and holding Jews in internment camps and keeping anti-Jewish laws in force.

In the face of withering criticism, less than a week after installing Darlan, Roosevelt felt compelled to issue a statement in which he described the arrangement with the Vichy leader as “temporary … only a temporary expedient, justified solely by the stress of battle.”

Hearing that, a bitter Darlan said, “I am only a lemon which the Americans will drop after they have squeezed it dry.”

Learning more about the unsavory Darlan’s actions during the invasion and faced with ugly news stories, Ike soon regretted having signed off on the Darlan Deal. At one point, he growled, “What I need around here is a damned good assassin!” Those around him knew where to find one.

On December 23, 1942, Darlan hosted the Allied senior leadership, absent Eisenhower who had gone to the front in Tunisia, for a holiday meal in the summer palace. The men and women on hand had much to celebrate, but remarked one reporter, Darlan’s “small blue eyes looked incredibly sad.” Other than a stiff toast to the hated British for their “victory,” a downcast Darlan mostly looked mutely over the gathering. At one point, he remarked acidly, “The Axis press will say I gave this luncheon because a gun was pointed at my head.” In fact, a real gun would shoot him in the head less than 24 hours later.

At one point, General Clark suggested to Darlan’s wife that she join her son, who had gone to the U.S. for treatment of his polio at the personal invitation of the president. Clark then turned to Darlan. At six-feet three-inches tall, the American towered over the diminutive Darlan and referred to him outside his hearing as “the Little Fellow.” The general said to Darlan, “I think it could be arranged for Admiral Darlan to go, too, if he chooses.” “To go” seemed the admiral’s only real choice. Darlan indicated that he would seriously consider Clark’s suggestion. His days in command were numbered.

After the meal, Darlan invited Ambassador Murphy to speak with him in his office. “You know,” Darlan told Murphy, now Eisenhower’s political adviser, “there are four plots in existence to assassinate me.” Murphy later wrote that Darlan appeared “sincerely disturbed over the prospect, but as though he were talking about the death of someone else, not himself.” Darlan’s detachment makes sense because he was already a dead man and the man he was talking to may have been one of those who had condemned him to death. “You know” meant “you know.”

The next day, Christmas Eve, at 2:30 p.m., Darlan had yet to return from lunch when Fernand Bonnier de La Chapelle walked into summer palace offices. The young man gave a false name and said he would wait in the anteroom for Darlan’s return to discuss a “personal” matter. Incredibly, nobody questioned him. Nobody searched him. He sat with a 7.65 Ruby automatic in his jacket pocket.

Bonnier de La Chapelle was one of a group of young men who had served in the Algiers resistance prior to the November 8 invasion. Although some favored de Gaulle and the Free France forces, he was among several self-described monarchists in the resistance group seeking the return of the French royal family to power. The 12 American “Apostles,” the Office of Strategic Services agents masquerading as State Department vice-consuls, had worked closely with the group, helping them to organize, providing smuggled arms, and assigning different cells various insurrectionary roles during the invasion. The OSSers also gave $40,000 in cash to the cells’ leaders. Since the successful invasion, Bonnier de La Chapelle and other French recruits had been training at a secret British Special Operations Executive (SOE) camp outside Algiers, where they were learning behind-the-lines communications and sabotage techniques for the war against the Germans. The British issued each trainee a .45 caliber revolver.

Carleton S. Coon, one of the OSS Apostles, a multi-lingual, Harvard University expert on Arab tribal culture (later a renowned if controversial anthropologist) turned OSS officer, served as a senior liaison officer between British and American secret services at the camp. He also instructed French recruits in communications, demolition, and weaponry, the tools of the subversive and guerilla warfare trade. Coon had already shown his inventiveness in black operations, including inventing “detonating mule turds,” plastic explosives shaped and colored to look like mule or camel dung and scattered along desert roads to blow up passing German tanks and trucks.

Since Darlan’s installation as head of the government, the older leaders of Bonnier de La Chapelle’s cell had plotted ways to eliminate Darlan. With Darlan out of the way, the royalists expected the Americans would put the pretender to the French throne presently living in exile in Morocco in power as a unifying figure. Four of the young men from the SOE training camp were selected for the operation; Bonnier de La Chapelle drew the short straw to carry out the deed. In a quiet spot on that bright December morning, he test fired his SOE-issued .45. It misfired. Another man in the group gave him the Ruby.

At 3 p.m., Darlan, accompanied by an aide, entered his outer office. Bonnier de La Chapelle pulled the Ruby and put it to his head. Darlan turned to face the gun. Bonnier de La Chapelle fired the first bullet into Darlan’s mouth, the second to the chest. Attempting to escape, Bonnier de La Chapelle shot and wounded Darlan’s aide before being subdued. Darlan never regained consciousness and died not long after reaching the hospital.

French police fanned out. Most of Bonnier de La Chapelle’s associates were arrested, as well as some instructors at the training camp.

However, OSS agent Carl Coon had already disappeared into the deserts of frontline Tunisia, where he would carry out subversive and special combat operations there against the German army. He put his knowledge of Arabic and tribal culture to work, recruiting local Arabs to pass behind the Nazi lines. Two Arabs he recruited blew up a German troop train. He was eventually made a major in the U.S. Army and led an advance team in the taking of the Nazi-held island of Corsica, radioing in bombing targets from a forward position against German forces there. Wounded earlier and finally incapacitated in Corsica, he returned home, where he continued to consult with the OSS. Among honors for his wartime service, he received the Distinguished Service Cross, the U.S. military’s second highest medal.

The quickly assembled Christmas military tribunal met the afternoon after Darlan’s murder. The naïve young assassin eagerly proclaimed his guilt. He never stopped believing that the trial would be followed by his mock execution. The court condemned Bonnier de La Chapelle to death without testimony after less than an hour’s hearing. His appeal was turned down that same evening. His coffin was already waiting for his corpse. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill wrote later that Bonnier de La Chapelle was “surprised to be shot” the next morning.

“The motive for the assassination of Darlan still remains a mystery,” Murphy wrote in his 1964 memoir, Diplomat Among Warriors. “Whoever influenced young de La Chapelle to commit the murder, supplying him with the pistol and apparently assuring him that he would be a national hero and would be fully protected from harm, never has been identified.”

In fact, a collective desire to see Darlan gone resonated between Washington and London and the whitewashed walls of Algiers. Even if the direct order to kill him was never given, a veiled conspiracy to eliminate Darlan arose at the highest levels. The estimable journalist, historian and military policy expert Thomas Ricks fingers Churchill as the culprit who ordered the assassination. Ricks cites several instances in which the prime minister indicated he wanted Darlan gone. At a war office meeting in mid-November with Churchill, one of those attending the meeting recorded, “We all agreed that we must get rid of Darlan somehow.” Three weeks later, Ricks points to another meeting where Charles de Gaulle urged the British to “get rid of Darlan.”

Clearly, the British, the Free French, and ultimately even the Americans who first cut the deal soured on “the Little Fellow.” All grew eager to “get rid of Darlan.” Coon or other OSS or SOE operatives training French recruits at the British special operations camp made sure that the ones least likely to cause further problems would do the bloody deed. Poor de La Chapelle assumed the Allies and the French nation would then save him. He received a measure of redemption when, in 1945, a French court posthumously reversed his conviction. The court declared that he had pulled the trigger “in the interest of liberation of France.”

Less than a month after Darlan’s assassination, with Roosevelt and Churchill on hand for their summit at Casablanca, Morocco, Generals de Gaulle and Giraud formed a unified leadership of the Fighting French forces. Eventually Giraud would cede command to the overpowering de Gaulle alone. The French got rid of their Vichy stain and the American and British allies eliminated their Darlan taint. Ready to rid Europe of the scourge of Mussolini and Hitler, the triumphant Allies turned in unity to the task.

General Clark summed up the sad reality of Darlan’s assassination for the Allies: “Admiral Darlan’s death was, to me, an act of providence. It is too bad he went that way, but, strategically speaking, his removal from the scene was like the lancing of a troublesome boil. He had served his purpose, and his death solved what could have been the very difficult problem of what to do with him in the future.” Providence took the form of the gun that the Allies put in an assassin’s hand delivering the tawdry “miracle” they needed to get on with the business of winning World War II.