CLOAK & DAGGER

The Spy Who Helped Free France From the Nazis

Secretly in charge of one of North Africa’s largest spy rings, Słowikowski was buddies with Josephine Baker and prominent businessmen. The Nazis never suspected a thing.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

In February 1942, few residents of Algiers, capital city of Vichy France’s North African colony of Algeria, were better regarded than Monsieur Sawikowski—nor so wrongly perceived.

The Polish exile-turned-businessman enjoyed great success in the midst of the Second World War. The 45-year-old émigré’s homeland had fallen to the Germans in September 1939. After almost two years in southern France, where he along with hundreds of thousands of other Polish exiles had fled, he moved with his wife and teenage son across the Mediterranean, leaving the worst of the war behind them.

Once there, he invested in and became commercial director of a barley oat-milling and -pressing factory called Floc-Av. Nutrition-starved Europeans ate up all the oatmeal the company could process, making it a sort of Quaker Oats for France, even winning supply contracts for French prisoners in German POW camps.

When he wasn’t obliged to travel for business around Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco, he resided in a spacious apartment in an elegant hotel off the Place du Gouvernement, central square of Algiers. Well-dressed, courteous to a fault, balding with thick, arched eyebrows over inquisitively piercing eyes, he drew little notice. He avoided trouble, walking past the darkened gates and arched passages of the shadowy casbah where anything could be had for a price and avoided the many moral hazards of a tense, multiethnic city that offered wealthy or otherwise fortunate Europeans an escape from the continent’s air raids, fighting, and food shortages. He socialized in the city’s cafés with his well-to-do French neighbors, counted many of the Vichy government’s officials as friends, and even welcomed Nazi officers from the Franco-German Armistice Commission, who also lived in the hotel, to the lively parties he and his wife threw. While he didn’t court celebrity in exile, when in Casablanca on business, Sawikowski made a point to visit his friend, the world famous singer and dancer Josephine Baker, an African-American ex-patriot in flight from Nazi-occupied Paris.

Constantly preoccupied with business affairs, Monsieur Sawikowski stood out only for being above suspicion in the tense world of Vichy North Africa where everyone was suspect. Until, he feared, the truth about Monsieur Sawikowski was on the verge of being revealed.

“It had happened at last!” he recalled nearly 50 years later, his cover appeared to have been blown. If the truth came out, the course of the Second World War might be entirely altered. The estimable and reserved Monsieur Sawikowski was in reality the mastermind at the center of one of the most important spy rings of World War II.

Sawikowski’s real name was Mieczysław Zygfryd Słowikowski. Since arriving in Algiers in July 1941, the Polish army major (later major general) had operated under the codename Rygor, Polish for “rigor.” Rygor quickly built and now operated a spy network that had eyes watching in virtually every corner of North Africa. His agents reported to him across thousands of miles of territory, from the battlefields of Libya to the port of Dakar, and every major town and city between. They also covered the convoy routes and battlegrounds of the Mediterranean and the French airfields scattered about the colonies. Inland his agents monitored the remote weapons dumps and internment and labor camps set up by the Vichy government in its collaboration with the Nazis as prisons for the thousands of fleeing foreign fighters who had been captured in North Africa, as well as North African Jews and French anti-Vichy and anti-Axis resisters. Agency Africa (Agence Afrique), as it was known to the Polish government-in-exile in London, operated perhaps the largest spy network in any Axis-controlled region, including mainland France itself. It had already proved to be among the most effective intelligence operations anywhere in World War II. Yet few today know about Agency Africa or Rygor.

It all might have come crashing down, for on this day Rygor believed that as a result of the arrest of his spy chief in Tunis, “Agency Africa had finally caved in!” In a panic, he ordered all Tunisian operations stopped and began to consider his next moves. If arrested, his entire family and literally thousands of others were in danger.

***

Słowikowski knew where to turn. Before the war, under another assumed identity, he had run a similar spy network against the Soviet Union’s Red Army from Kiev, Ukraine. After Poland fell to the Nazis and Soviets in September 1939, Słowikowski went to France. From Paris and, when it fell to the Nazis, southern France, he directed the smuggling network channeling Polish soldiers and airmen to England, to continue the war. His network associates included CADIX, a team of Polish cryptologists and mathematicians who had broken parts of the German ENIGMA codes before the war and then helped England’s top secret Bletchley Park ULTRA codebreaking and enemy radio monitoring program. (The movie about computer scientist Alan Turing, The Imitation Game, entirely ignores the Poles’ indispensable contributions to ULTRA.)

With direction but almost no financial support from his contacts in London, Słowikowski went to North Africa under orders to build an intelligence network. Starting from effectively nothing, he would need to report on French and Axis forces and their defense installations, ships and aircraft movements, and transports of weapons, goods, and natural resources overland and by ship. While fighting raged between the United Kingdom and Axis armies in the eastern deserts of Libya, the sun-drenched, expropriated ancient Arab desert and seaside states of French North Africa lived on a knife’s edge but at peace. Algeria, Tunisia, neighboring Morocco, and French West Africa down the Atlantic coast were under the grip of the collaborationist Vichy government and its snooping security forces. Ever watchful, their German government and Gestapo thug overlords eyed the movements of exiles, newly arrived Europeans, and foreign diplomats, ready to pounce on escaped enemy prisoners of war, members of anti-occupation groups, and spies opposed to the Nazis’ New Order in Europe.

Rumors abounded that Germany might drive through Spain to take all of North Africa. Other rumors pointed to a British invasion. The British had already brutally savaged French ships in naval ports at Dakar and outside Tunis. Given Vichy collaboration with the Nazis and popular French hatred of the British, Britain’s large foreign intelligence service, MI6, had almost no spies of its own in North Africa. Without spies, the crucial southern Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts of Africa would remain a threatening blank spot on the map to the Allies. Loss of the region would spell disaster for British forces fighting Germans and Italians in Libya and potential closure of the Suez Canal.

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Rygor’s Agency Africa needed to have spies everywhere in a region spanning thousands of miles. Stumbling onto a superb cover in return for an investment in Floc-Av, Słowikowski assumed a new identity as the company’s commercial director, Monsieur Sawikowski. Floc-Av required frequent business trips, which enabled him to get difficult-to-obtain travel passes, throughout North Africa. Just as important, the profitable business proved lucrative enough for him to pay his officers and agents out of his own salary and share of Floc-Av’s profits. He was a professional intelligence officer and highly experienced military man. Agency Africa grew and grew.

***

Not until more than 30 years after the war ended were documents from wartime intelligence archives made available in the United Kingdom; even now some remain off-limits. In 1988, drawing on his own coded reports sent to London, Słowikowski published a carefully detailed memoir of his wartime spy career, In the Secret Service, republished in the U.S. in 2010 as Codename Rygor. Within just months of his arrival in Algiers, Słowikowski writes, “All the ports, administrative and military centers were covered… I…had about a hundred principal agents, they had their collaborators who had their collaborators and so on almost ad infinitum, constituting a vast and complex human pyramid.” Even he could not know precisely how many people served his network, “since only the most important ones had agency numbers [identity codes],” names were never used and face-to-face meetings were rare. Based on reports from his principal outposts that Rygor collated and forwarded along to London, he estimated Agency Africa at its height had some 2,500 agents in the field. “I felt like an enormous spider enveloping ever larger spans of territory in its web,” he recalled.

Rygor’s agents worked as trusted employees and officials in strategic spots throughout North Africa. French military barracks, naval warships, and Vichy security and the Gestapo offices had Agency Africa’s agents within their very midst. Among the most productive infiltrators were Vichy’s director of secret intelligence for Algeria; the chief of police in Oran, Algeria’s second largest city and port; the chief navigational officer for the French coastal shipping authority, who could report on virtually all shipping traffic and loads running in and out of most ports; along with harbor pilots, railway workers, fishing boat captains, and journalists, as well as fighter pilots in the French Air Force and commanders in the nation’s army.

Once recruited, agents communicated through apartment and commercial building mailbox drops. Such was the secrecy that shrouded Agency Africa’s network that two Floc-Av salesmen never realized that their own boss was the chief of Agency Africa for which they spied during their sales-call travels.

Twice a day, Rygor’s radioman, who lived down the hall in his hotel, brought him the day’s reports from the regional outposts. Rygor (together with his wife Sophie and son George) decoded them, and he then edited them for what he perceived as the most reliable and useful nuggets. He sent the coded reports to London via CADIX’s radio center in southern France.

A day’s message might contain news reports of interest, descriptions of troops, ships, and munitions, ship and rail cargoes, and identities and movements of military and government officials. A typical message [edited here] included:

Transfer of 300,000 tons of wheat from Tunisia to Tripoli; the opening of the Tebessa-Kasserine railway sector with its extension to the southern port of Gabès; tankers shipped from France via Oran-Algiers-Tunis-Gabès continued by road to Tripoli; a further 600 tankers on their way from Algiers; The SS Strabon and Faason sailed from Oran with armaments for Dakar.

He suspected but couldn’t know that the material provided strategic information for Allied forces that even enabled them to target specific Axis forces for attack. Only after the war did Słowikowski learn that in reality his Polish contacts in London were working for the British foreign intelligence agency, MI6, which relayed reports to the military. The Polish spy bureau in London served as a beard to hide the full extent of British overseas spying operations from Nazi infiltrators. Still, he occasionally learned of the sinking of Axis military shipments and downing of aircraft carrying German officers, for which he had alerted London. Spies operate in a shadow world of deliberately limited knowledge and ambiguity, but he knew his intelligence had real military value.

***

When the United States entered the war in December 1941, hope for eventual victory rebounded. The U.S kept uneasy diplomatic relations with France’s Vichy government. Nonetheless, the U.S. ambassador to Vichy North Africa, Robert Daniel Murphy, made contact with one of Rygor’s agents. He invited the unknown chief of Agency Africa to meet with his vice-consuls shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Slipping past German agents posted outside the U.S. Algiers embassy building, Słowikowski met two vice-consuls who were part of a recently established American network of 12 diplomats sent to spy on North Africa. Known as the “Twelve Apostles” of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), they were America’s first formal venture into the foreign espionage business. [See the previous installment in this series, “12 Amateur Spies Paved the Way to War Against the Nazis.”] Under the leadership of the State Department’s Murphy and a Marine colonel and former college-president-turned-spy-chief, William Eddy, the OSSers were set up in North Africa to spy on the French and Germans and foment insurrections, in preparation for future military action. Rygor agreed to provide the U.S. diplomat-cum-spies with his London-bound briefings. Although the Apostles never acknowledged the source of their invaluable intelligence, the American military now had access to professional, finely grained reports on their likely opposition in North Africa.

In early summer 1942, Słowikowski met with another American seeking North African intelligence, Col. Robert Solberg, there on behalf of U.S. Army intelligence. Słowikowski laid out for Solberg the need and value of an early invasion of North Africa. In Słowikowski’s assessment, because the French hated the British, the French would resist British invaders to the death, but he explained to Solberg, “If… the operation was carried out under the United States’ flag with an American general commanding the invasion forces, then… the French detachments would put up [merely] a symbolic resistance and all of French North Africa could be occupied within 24 hours.”

Convinced that Słowikowski’s strategic outlook offered the key to victory, Solberg returned to Washington immediately after his meeting with him. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his highest military leaders were debating whether to invade North Africa as the U.S.’ first venture into Europe at that very moment. Solberg reported to William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan, director of the OSS. According to a British Embassy briefing to London sent at the time, although personally unhappy about Solberg’s unauthorized contacts with the North African underground, Donovan passed his report to General George C. Marshall, U.S. Army chief of staff. He forwarded it “to the President for a decision.” Not long after these meetings, FDR decided to invade North Africa in exactly the manner Słowikowski recommended. Słowikowski had laid out the strategic principles for what became Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa, led by American forces, on Nov. 8, 1942.

Słowikowski met a few days later for the first time with the OSS spy chief Eddy, whose Apostles were now directed to set the stage for invading and occupying North Africa. Eddy went to London and Washington to meet with the military war planners. The wheels of what became the largest amphibious invasion up to that date in history were set in motion.

***

The danger of being revealed never let up. Rygor’s spies faced what he called “a galaxy of enemies—Gestapo and Armistice [Commission] agents, Vichy’s special counter-intelligence commissioner and his men, the local [security forces, fascist militias, and other organized pro-Axis groups], and a host of other collaborators, Axis agents, and informers.” But none of the outpost leaders within Agency Africa network had been compromised before early February 1942.

Monsieur Sawikowski’s wife brought him a letter at his Floc-Av office. He was shocked to learn from it that Vichy security agents had arrested the commander of his Tunisian network, along with two other spies. A police search of his home turned up documents linking the outpost head to the commander of the French army in Tunisia. He had been immediately relieved and ordered back to France. The documents pointed to Algiers as “the center of the espionage ring.” Two Vichy inspectors had been seen lurking outside the building where Agency Africa’s second in command, Lieutenant Count Henry Lubienski (codenamed Banuls), lived. Rygor telephoned Banuls and ordered that he and his wife leave immediately for a safe house where a local resistance leader lived on the city’s outskirts. Grabbing only essentials, they slipped out of their apartment. They would remain inside for weeks, not daring to expose themselves to prying neighbors, before Rygor finally arranged for them to be smuggled out of the country.

But Rygor still didn’t know how much the Vichy police knew. Were they setting a trap for him? He knew just whom to ask. Avoiding police checkpoints, he drove through the night along dark side streets to the apartment of André Achiary, Vichy director of security for the Algiers district, the head of Vichy’s secret police for Algeria, but one who was deeply anti-German and ready to cooperate with the resistance underground. Achiary knew all about the two inspectors searching for Banuls.

Early the next morning, Vichy security officers raided the Lubienskis’ apartment. They were gone, but the police found the address for a postbox drop. They arrested its owner. But with his arrest, they reached the end of that node of the Agency Africa web. According to Achiary, no other incriminating documents were found in the raid. Rygor could breathe again.

***

Before long Achiary’s political leanings grew suspect. He was transferred to a distant countryside town, though one with its own nearby French military installation. He continued to spy for Agency Africa.

Despite the constant search for the chief of the largest spy ring in Axis-controlled Europe, Monsieur Sawikowski remained above suspicion. Over Agency Africa’s year and a half of operations, Rygor sent 1,244 multipart intelligence reports to London, first via radio and then, thanks to Eddy and the OSS vice-consuls, in American diplomatic pouches, to London and Washington. Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa, led by American forces, on Nov. 8, 1942, captured and occupied a 1,200-mile stretch of the Atlantic and Mediterranean coast. North Africa fell to the Allied invaders in almost exactly the way Rygor had suggested to Solberg.

However, even with the initial taking of most of French North Africa, Rygor could not let down his guard. He understood the continued threat he faced after the Dec. 24, 1942, assassination of Admiral Jean-François Darlan, the self-serving former Vichy prime minister and navy commander in chief. Over the objection of French resistance forces and the American press, he had been installed by the Allies to oversee their occupation of North Africa. His assassin, a right-wing member of the French resistance, was executed immediately the next day. Słowikowski had a “presentiment” that he “might be repaid in this way,” for, he wrote, “knowing too much.” (More on the assassination of Darlan in the third and final installment of “The Dark Path to Victory.”) Remaining ever vigilant, he continued to meet regularly with the OSS’ Eddy, cooperating with him in clearing North Africa of Axis sympathizers.

Later in 1943, Słowikowski decamped to London where he came upon a sight that made his years of danger and tense secrecy worthwhile. At the British War Office, he saw “a huge map of North Africa… with all my intelligence information marked on it from which Operation Torch was planned.” Meeting Słowikowski for the first time, the British army’s liaison officer in charge of North African intelligence shook his hand and told him, “I’m sorry that you are not British—for what you have done for Britain, you wouldn’t have to work again for the rest of your life!”

His contributions didn’t go without honors. In August 1943 Polish military authorities decorated Słowikowski with Poland’s Gold Cross of Merit with Swords. On March 28, 1944, back in Algiers, in a large formal ceremony in the Place du Gouvernement, within sight of the building from which Rygor operated Agency Africa, Słowikowski received both Great Britain’s Order of the British Empire and the U.S. Legion of Merit, for, read the U.S. Army’s citation, “furnishing to American officers in North Africa military information of inestimable value…”

In September 1944 Słowikowski transferred to Scotland as chief of staff of the Polish Infantry Training Centre. With the defeat of the Axis, his nation fell under Soviet domination. Rather than face certain death in his homeland, he settled permanently in London. He lived as a metalworker and remained there until he died in 1989, at age 93.

However, his death brought few tributes for his crucial contribution to the war effort in North Africa and ultimate victory in World War II. Although Słowikowski met at least twice with OSS chief Donovan, who, he found, to be entirely familiar with Agency Africa’s work, Colonel Eddy, the OSS’ chief spy in North Africa, and U.S. Ambassador Murphy never acknowledged Agency Africa’s intelligence as a source for the success of American intelligence and black espionage operations.

Postwar French governments also ignored Słowikowski’s role in France’s eventual liberation. Eager to forget the nation’s Vichy collaborationist period and perhaps embarrassed that the largest, most effective internal anti-Nazi forces were organized and run principally by foreigners, France never acknowledged Słowikowski’s and Agency Africa’s role in the liberation of North Africa. Few MI6 documents from the period indicate Agency Africa as their source, but that makes sense given the need to keep their agents secret. Most histories of Operation Torch or the spies of North Africa never mention Rygor or Agency Africa’s activities through those dark days of 1941 and 1942. To learn about his contributions, the best source remains Słowikowski’s own memoir. His story is also told in a 2009 French documentary, “Les ombres de Casablanca.”

Largely overlooked, all but forgotten, absent Słowikowski’s brilliance as a spy chief, his personal heroism (and that of his thousands of agents), and Agency Africa’s espionage success, the course of World War II might have been very different. Without the unassuming man codenamed Rygor, the taking of North Africa starting in November 1942 would have proved far deadlier, a harrowing fight to capture an unknown, dark and dangerous land.