He was a great hero of France and if General Giraud could be persuaded to support the Allied landings in French North Africa much of the possible bloodshed could be avoided. Giraud agreed to travel to North Africa but he refused to travel in a British warship. So the only available vessel, the submarine HMS Seraph, became the USS Seraph, and for the first and only time a Royal Navy vessel was commanded by an American captain.
France had suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Germans in 1940 and many in that country blamed Britain for dragging France into the war in the first place or for failing to adequately support her when invaded. The British Expeditionary Force’s evacuation from Dunkirk, the capture of French ships in UK ports and the attack upon the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir only served to confirm in the minds of large numbers of French men and women that Britain was just as much an enemy of France as was Germany and Italy. Attacks upon the French colonies of Dakar, Madagascar and Syria further reinforced the view that Britain could not be trusted. The USA was seen by the French in an entirely different light.
This divergence of approach between the Allies in their dealings with France became a serious issue when, in 1942, an invasion of French North Africa was proposed. A landing by US troops in North Africa was likely to be unopposed by the French. However, if the invasion force included British troops, the situation might be quite different. A solution to this problem might be found if a senior French figure could be persuaded to give the operation his backing. The question to be answered was which individual with enough creditability could be persuaded to agree to the invasion of French territory?
General d’Armee Henri Honore Giraud stood before the German Ambassador to the French Government in Vichy, Herr Otto Abetz. Giraud had been the commander of the French 7th Army in 1940 when the Germans had inva ded France. Giraud had been captured and taken prisoner, being held in the top security prison at Konigstein Castle near Dresden. On 17 April 1942, he escaped by lowering himself down the cliff of the mountain fortress. With the help of the Special Operations Executive he travelled to Switzerland and was slipped quietly into Vichy France.
Once in Vichy he revealed himself to the Vichy Government. Soon all of France knew of his daring escape. This did not go down well with the Germans who demanded that Vichy should hand him back.
This, though, was not something that the Vichy authorities could easily do. Giraud was now regarded as a great hero by the French and if he was meekly returned to the Germans it would demonstrate just how weak Petain’s regime really was. So, instead, Giraud was asked to surrender himself to the Germans and a meeting was arranged between Giraud and Herr Abetz.
The German Ambassador told Giraud that his presence in Vichy had caused a breach in relations between the two countries. Giraud was unmoved by this. Abetz then offered the French general a deal. If Giraud handed himself over to Abetz then Germany would release 50,000 French prisoners of war. «If I accept that offer what guarantees have I got that you will keep your promise?» Giraud asked.
«The word of Germany,» replied Abetz.
Giraud knew how much trust could be placed on the word of Germany, so he called Abetz’s bluff: «I will go back, Herr Abetz, if Germany will release all the married French prisoners of war.»
«But General,» gasped Abetz, «do you know there are about 400,000 married prisoners?»
«Of course I know,» said Giraud. «I shall stay at Lyon until they come home and you have my word that I shall then return to Konigstein.»1
Abetz angrily broke up the meeting.
As Giraud was leaving the building he was confronted by Petain’s Prime Minister, Pierre Laval, who demanded that the General should give himself up. Giraud told Laval exactly what he thought of the Prime Minister and marched off home.
For the next three months Giraud rarely left his home, expecting any moment a knock on the door which would herald his arrest. Then, in October 1942, he received a message from General Charles Mast, the officer in command at Algiers. There had been rumours that the Allies were planning on invading French North Africa and Mast wanted to know what stance he should take if an invasion occurred.
The two men then continued a secret correspondence in which Mast suggested that if Giraud went to Algiers and rallied all the garrisons in North Africa to his side, the Allies could enter North Africa unchallenged and the Germans would be presented by a fait accompli. This was a daring suggestion as such an act would in all probability be considered treacherous by Petain.
Mast also indicated that he had contact with the Allies through Robert Murphy in the US Embassy in Algiers and that the Americans would smuggle Giraud out of France to lend legitimacy to the Allied invasion. Giraud, however, saw his position somewhat differently than the Americans did. «The Americans are amateurs at war,» he told Mast, «but they have the valuable asset of enthusiasm. They will recognise that France has always produced the finest soldiers of Europe and will be certain to accept my advice and leadership in the interest of total victory.»
Mast encouraged Giraud, writing that:
«I think you may be assured from my talks with Murphy that, once you arrive in Algiers, the Allies will see the military importance of your presence and accept that you are the only logical commander for the North African theatre.»
Giraud also made it clear that he was quite happy to cooperate with the Americans but that he would be having nothing whatsoever to do with the British. There was, of course, not the slightest chance of Giraud taking command of the entire operation. His presence alongside the Allies was merely to appease the French and his opinion of the British counted for nothing.
Though Giraud demanded commander of the operation, which was codenamed Torch, before he left France, this was not forthcoming. Nevertheless, he was persuaded to prepare himself to be taken from France by submarine.
The Vichy police had been keeping a close eye on Giraud but he was able to escape with the assistance of the local Resistance. Giraud and his party were driven towards Nice, making their way to the beach at the tiny resort of Le Lavandou.
The French police had been alerted to Giraud’s likely escape and they were searching the coast. Giraud and his three companions were forced to hide in bushes hoping they would not be discovered before the time the expected ‘American’ submarine would arrive to rescue them.
The mission to pick up the French general was called Operation Kingpin.
Colonel Brad Gaylord was a member of the United States Army Air Force and he was uneasy in the confines of His Majesty’s Submarine Seraph. He was introduced to the officers of Seraph as Operation Kingpin was explained to them.
The officers were told that Giraud had expressly stated that if a Royal Navy submarine turned up to collect him he would refuse to go on board. Unfortunately there was not a single US submarine within 3,000 miles of the South of France. HMS Seraph, which was already in the Mediterranean, was available and was given the task of picking up Girard but, for this trip she would have to become an American boat — the USS Seraph!
However, HMS Seraph, commanded by Lieutenant Norman «Bill» Jewell, RN, was no stranger to such special duties work, having already transported a group of top US personnel to a point on the Algerian coast for a meeting with a deputation of French officers and officials.
Heading the American party on that occasion was Major General Mark Wayne Clark who was acting as General Eisenhower’s personal representative. Accompanying him was Brigadier-General Lyman Louis Lemnitzer, the man responsible for planning the invasion of French North Africa, Colonel Arch Hamblem, who was a logistics expert, and Colonel Julius Holmes, who was acting as a translator. Captain Jerauld Wright, who as Eisenhower’s Naval Liaison Officer would perform the same role in the negotiations with the French. Wright’s specific objective was to persuade the French to sail its fleet anchored in Toulon round to North Africa to join the Allied cause.
The American party was picked up by HMS Seraph from Gibraltar, where it was also loaded with supplies and equipment including collapsible canoes, additional weapons and radios. Three Commando officers — Captain Godfrey B. Courtney, Captain R.P Livingstone and Lieutenant J.P. Foote — were also taken onboard to deal with the technical details of the landing of the US party.
It was Lieutenant Jewell’s job to get the submarine to the exact point along the Algerian coast and wait there for the return of the Americans. It was the Commandos’ job to get the negotiating team to the shore and back to Seraph. This mission was called Operation Flagpole.
The submarine slipped out of Gibraltar on the night of 19 October 1942. Clark explained to Lieutenant Jewell and the three Commandos the exact place where the rendezvous with the French was to take place. Unrolling a large-scale map of the Algerian coast, Clark pointed to a pencilled cross. «That is where we are going,» Clark explained. «There is a house just there, a large house with white walls and a red-tiled roof. It sits on rather a large hill about halfway between the shore and the coast road. There is a path leading up to it and, down by the beach, a small grove of olive trees where I think we might hide the boats after we land.»1
Specific though these details seem, to Jewell they appeared impossibly vague: «That sounds like all Algerian coastal scenery, sir. The whole country is filled with white houses with red-tiled roofs.» Clark, nevertheless, was confident that the house could be found.
HMS Seraph cruised through the night. The sea was calm and a full-scale practice was undertaken with the canoes (actually collapsible Folbots) with the submarine stopped on the surface. The practice having been considered satisfactory Seraph sailed on and, at the precise point indicated on the map, Jewell brought the submarine to a halt on the night of the 20th.
Clark confidently identified the large white red-tiled house. An identifying signal from a special lamp which could only be seen with infra-red glasses was expected but none could be seen. With dawn approaching, the decision was taken to wait until the next night. Jewell had been told that the reception party would be at the rendezvous for the next two nights, so Seraph sailed back out to sea.
That night, 21 October, Seraph returned to the coast. An anxious wait ended shortly after 23.00 hours when a thin, pale light gleamed from the white house.
Running almost silently, Seraph crept in under the guns of French Algeria. A few minutes before midnight, she stopped only 500 yards from the beach. Thanks to the earlier practice, the Folbots were handled well and the VIP party headed for the shore, despite Captain Courtney capsizing his canoe and ending up in the sea when he clambered off the submarine. The three Commandos were under strict orders to keep their British uniforms concealed.
Seraph returned to deeper waters, spending the rest of the night charging her batteries before diving as dawn approached. At 20.00 hours Seraph crept back to the shore. Contact was made with Clark and his team and an attempt was made to paddle out to the submarine. The weather, though, had changed considerably. The sea was rising and the surf, already rough, had become impassable for the tiny Folbots. The first attempt failed and it was not until 04.00 hours that the men, having stripped off their uniforms, finally succeeded in forcing their way through the surf. Seraph reached Gibraltar on 25 October and disembarked her collection of US generals.
The Commandos, however, stayed with Seraph. Her clandestine work was not finished.
The meeting with the French officials had gone well but General Mast had said that he could only guarantee the loyalty of the Algerian garrison he commanded. What was now needed was for General Giraud to be taken to North Africa to assume control of the French forces and ensure a safe landing for the Allied armies — another job for HMS Seraph.
Seraph, though, was a British submarine and as Giraud had made abundantly clear his opposition to being transported by the Royal Navy, some degree of deception was required. So, for the only time in history, a British vessel was placed under the orders of an American naval officer as Captain Jerry Wright USN was given command of HMS Seraph. Lieutenant-Colonel Bradley Gaylord was also seconded to Operation Kingpin as an interpreter.
On 5 November 1942, the USS Seraph, flying the US Navy ensign, was at a point some twenty miles east of Toulon. There they waited for the celebrated French general and his party.
In due course a small white rowing boat appeared from the shadows. «It was one of those old French fishing boats about as broad in the beam as it was long,» recalled Gaylord. «It was painted white, with red paint round the gunwales and on the seat. Sitting in the bow was an old fisherman … In the stern sat General Giraud — 6 feet odd, dressed in civilian clothes and wearing a grey fedora. His gloved hands were folded over a walking stick and a rain-coat was thrown over his shoulders like a cloak. It was the first time I had ever seen him and he looked like an old-time monarch visiting his fleet.»
As the boat hit the submarine, Giraud stood up, put one foot on the gunwale of the fishing boat and made a great leap as the two vessels bounced away from each other. Giraud missed Seraph’s deck and went down between the fishing boat and the submarine. Luckily he landed on the submarine’s ballast tanks just below the surface and he was quickly hauled onto the deck, followed by the rest of his group.
With the general safely onboard, the pantomime began. Seemingly unconcerned at his fall, Giraud shook hands formally with Captain Wright who, with Gaylord interpreting, welcomed him aboard the USS Seraph!
«The transfer had been made swiftly and silently,» Jewell later wrote. «The smack seemed to drift away from us to vanish mysteriously into the blackness of storm and night…
The party of men on the casings lost no time coming aft, heading for the tower.» This was where Jewell had waited as the events unfolded, and from where he gave his orders, softly so as not to be heard by Giraud, for Seraph to turn about and head out to sea — for too long the submarine had loitered in hostile, shallow waters.
Having climbed up the conning tower, Giraud reached Jewell on Seraph’s small bridge. It was then that the carefully planned deception nearly unravelled.
«As he reached my side,» recalled Jewell, «I saluted and from pure force of habit murmured: ‘Welcome aboard, sir.» The fact that the submarine’s real captain had spoken in his best English and momentarily forgotten his role as a junior officer in the American Navy was «greeted by a dirty look from Wright and a chuckle from Gaylord». Giraud simply gave Jewell a quick smile and said «Merci, m’sier». The moment of danger had passed.
Though Wright was nominally in command, he did not know the finer details of operating a British submarine and Jewell had to give all the necessary orders. In the spirit of things the British crew affected American accents, often imitating what they had seen in films.
Eager to play his part when everyone had gathered below in the wardroom, one of the Commandos, Captain Godfrey Courtney, turned to Captain Andre Beaufre, who was the French General’s Chief of Staff. «Say Captain,» drawled Courtney in his best American accent,» you people must be goddam tired. I reckon you should save the gabbin’ till tomorrow, hit the hay right now and grab yourselves a right useful slice of shut-eye.»2
As the French officer’s eyebrows shot up in amazement — Beaufre, with a British wife, spoke perfect English -Gaylord quickly intervened to present the suggestion more suitably to the General.
As Seraph set course for Gibraltar, Jewell had time to consider how Operation Kingpin had gone. «The whole performance had gone off exactly as I had foreseen,» he noted. «When the General directed his remarks to any single person, he chose Captain Wright as his target, a sure indication to us that our little ‘American plan’, as we had come to call it, was succeeding perfectly.»3
In due course, however, Wright revealed the deception to General Giraud, pointing out that he was in fact on a British submarine and that Wright himself was a member of Eisenhower’s staff. «Giraud,» noted the historian Terence Robertson, «seemed unaffected by the disclosure».4
Operation Torch was due to begin on 8 November. Seraph could not possibly get to Gibraltar until the 10th. The only way that Giraud could reach North Africa was by aircraft. It had been planned that a Catalina would meet Seraph but the submarine suffered a wireless transmitter failure and was unable to contact Gibraltar.
Lieutenant Jewell decided to take the risk of travelling during daylight on the surface.
It was the only chance they had of being spotted by the Catalina. It also meant that it might be seen by enemy aircraft. Luck was on Jewell’s side and at 08.50 hours on the 7th, the Catalina located Seraph.
The flying-boat landed close to the submarine and the Folbots were unpacked once again. Giraud and his party were on the fore deck when a shout from a look-out interrupted the farewells: «Aircraft dead astern coming this way. Elevation 10 degrees, distance about 8,000 yards.» The aircraft was coming in low and fast. «Look like Ju.88, sir,» added the lookout.
Jewell responded immediately. The decks were cleared; the Frenchmen, Giraud included, were literally thrown down the conning tower hatch by the British crew. It was only at the last minute, as Jewell himself was halfway through the hatch, that he identified the aircraft as an Allied Hudson. Alarm over, General Giraud was transferred without further mishap and he reached Gibraltar later that day, just a few hours before the invasion of North Africa began.
There was, however, a problem.
Giraud, furious at the deception which had been played upon him, and even angrier that he was not being given command of Operation Torch, refused to co-operate with the Allies, declaring that if he took a lesser role «his honour would be tarnished».
Everything that Lieutenant Jewell, his crew, the Commandos and the American generals had done over the previous days, all of which added to HMS Seraph’s unofficial title of «the secret mission submarine», seemed to have been entirely in vain. The next day, however, the stubborn French general, seeing that if he did not agree to join the Allies he would be completely side-lined, relented.
Operation Torch was a relative success. The French in Algiers, under Mast, handed over the city to the Allies. It was a different matter, however, in Casablanca and Oran, where the French resisted and when the pompous Giraud tried to take over command of the French forces he was ignored.
It was in fact Admiral Darlan who was accepted by the French as their leader and when, on 10 November 1942, he ordered the French troops to lay down their arms, they obeyed.