Friday, November 09, 2012

Torchlit Triumph, and a Woman of Valour

TWO WOMEN who "did their bit". Left, Colette Aboulker, decorated in Algiers, and Right, Noor Inayat Khan, murdered in Dachau.
SEVENTY years ago, Allied forces under the overall command of General Dwight David Eisenhower invaded north-west Africa, the Maghreb, under Operation Torch. British-led forces of the Eighth Army had defeated Rommel's Afrika Korps at El Alamein, and begun driving the Axis forces back from the borders of Egypt. By landing in the West the mainly American forces of Torch could join in clearing the Nazi and Italian forces out of the southern side of the Mediterranean, and prepare for invasion of Europe.

A big question facing them was what to do about the French. After the fall of France in June 1940 the Germans had left Marshall Petain's collaborator regime at Vichy in control of southern France, and of France's overseas departments and territories. Algeria, with its large European settler population, was a French colony, and neighbouring Morocco and Tunisia were counted as protectorates.

Though elsewhere General De Gaulle's Free French were fighting on the Allied side, and in France itself there was the Resistance, French forces in north Africa were firmly under Vichy command, and the Navy particularly after its ships were scuttled at Mers el Kebir was bitterly anti-British. As for the settler population, seeing its privilege rested on racism, many were far-Right even without Nazi encouragement, and belonged to fascist militias.

Yet the United States, which had maintained diplomatic relations with the Vichy government, and carried on trading with it in Algeria, was reluctant to trust De Gaulle or disrupt colonial rule overmuch in Algeria.

Nevertheless, on November 8, 1942, as the Allied landings began, a band of no more than about 400 poorly-armed rebels, some of them with military experience, others students and even schoolboys, set out to seize strategic buildings in Algiers, taking over the main post office, the police headquarters, telephone exchange and governor's palace, so as to completely disrupt the Vichy authorities and so far as posible neutralise or hinder resistance to the Allied invasion.

Many wore armbands falsely identifying themselves as civic defence volunteers, and leaders had fake orders authorising them to take over buildings. Once inside the central police headquarters a group took phone calls from the real volunteers, wanting to know what was going on, and summoned them to an emergency meeting. Arriving at the headquarters the officers were allowed in, and escorted to the cells where they were locked up for the duration!

The majority of the insurgents were Algerian Jews, some of them demobbed from the French army after France fell, others young people like Jose Aboulker, a 23 year old medical student who had contact with the underground Communist Party. Jose's sister Colette helped run the family house as headquarters on the night of the uprising. Later at the end of the war she was awarded the Croix de Guerre for her services nursing war wounded.

Although the Jews of Algeria had a history going back to Roman times, and had taken in both Berber converts and those expelled from Spain, in 1870 under the Cremieux Decree they were entitled to French citizenship, and thus came to be educated and think of themselves as French. This loyalty was not rewarded by amity from the settlers however, many of whom jealously guarded their status with a hatred of them both as natives and as Jews. There were anti-Jewish pogroms in several Algerian cities towards the end of the 19th century, after the Dreyfus Affair for instance, and in 1898 the antisemite Edouard Drumont, author 'La France Juive' was elected a deputy for Algiers.

In the 1930s Jacques Doriot's fascist Parti Populaire Francaise established a section in Algeria, and obtained funding from fascist Italy for it. Colonel de la Roque's Croix de Feu movement, not initially anti-Jewish, became such as it expanded among Algerian whites. One of the first actions of the Vichy regime was to abolish the Cremieux Decree in October 1940, and the following year its commissar for Jewish affairs, Xavier Vallat, arrived in Algiers to supervise enforcement of anti-Jewish measures seizing property, excluding people from jobs and profesions, and even expelling Jewish pupls from the schools.

General Maxime Weygand, the governor who signed the schools order, thought he might win support from native Algerians by suggesting that Muslim pupils might take the places of the Jews. It did not happen, and anyway Arabs were not impressed. As Ferhat Abbas, later a leadeer of the independence struggle, said:  
"That which you do to the Jews of Algeria, so perfectly assimilated to French civilisation, is of your own intitative and not that of the enemy who never sought the abrogation of the Cremieux decree. Your racism goes in all directions. Today it is exercised against the Jews. It is exercised every day against the Arabs"
The conclusion they drew from the abrogation of the Cremieux Decree was that you could not entrust your freedom to collaboration with the French.

The Vichyites could not get their own way in Morocco, where King Mohammed V insisted that his Jewish subjects did not come under French law, nor in Tunisia. But in Algeria the European population was largely inclined to welcome the measures, and but for logistic problems it is possible the Nazis would have been able to extend their Final Solution to that part of the Maghreb by arranging the deportation of Algerian Jews. As it was, thanks to the action on November 8, Algerian Jews were not only spared but made their contribution to final victory, by helping throw the Asix forces out of north Africa..         

 Not that the November 8 "putschists" were all Jewish. Among those who played a distinguished part were a group of high school students from the Lycee Ben Aknoun led by a cadet called Bernard Pauphilet. Surrounding the Villa des Olives they captured not only General Alphonse Juin, the commander in chief of French forces in north Africa, but Admiral Francois Darlan, the number two in the Vichy regime, who had been visiting his son in hospital in Algiers. Robert Murphy, the US consul in Algiers, rushed over to the villa with a letter from President Roosevelt. Darlan stalled, even managing to get a message out to his forces ordering resistance to the Allied invasion, In the end the terms of surrender ennabled Darlan to become governor, ruling Algeria with the Americans' support,

Not only that but the anti-Jewish measures remained after Algeria was "liberated", and so did the forced labour camps in the desert where Spanish Republicans, International Brigade veterans, Algerian political prisoners were held. When Darlan was assassinated by a young Frenchman, his successor General Giraud ordered the round-up of "suspects" , among them Jose Aboulker, and their despatch to these camps, while the Americans refused to interfere. It was not till a year after Algeria's "liberation" by the Allies that the prisoners from these Vichy camps began to be freed.

I'll be talking about the Algiers rising and its unsatisfactory aftermath at a meeting on Sunday evening, which by an appropriate coincidence also happens to be Remembrance Sunday. So if you want something to take away the taste of the statesmen's hypocrisy while still honouring those who fought, you're welcome to come along.
Jewish Socialists' Group meeting

Sunday 11th November, 7.30pm 

MIC Centre 81-103 Euston Street NW1 2EZ (between Euston and Euston Square stations)

"Lighting the Torch, Algiers November 8 1942"

Noor Inayat Khan 

STILL on the subject of remembrance, and of light -because that is what her name Noor means,  a memorial was unveiled in London's Gordon Square gardens yesterday to one of the bravest women of World War II, Noor Inayat Khan,

The daughter of a Sufi Muslim family from India, and said to be a descendant of the 18th century prince Tippu Sultan who resisted the British, Noor Inayat Khan was born on January 1, 1914, in Moscow, where her father was working. Later the family moved to England and then to France where Noor studied music and medicine, before becoming a successful children's writer.

In May 1940 the Germans invaded France, but Noor and her mother and sister got to England just before France collapsed, and here Noor joined the Women's Auxiliary Air Force, training as a wireless operator. That together with her fluent French led to her recruitment by the Special Operations Executive(SOE).

Given the codename "Madeleine" she was flown to France on 16th June 1943, She joined a Resistance network in Paris, After members of this group were arrested by the Gestapo, her superiors fearing it had been infiltrated by a Nazi spy instructed "Madeleine" to return home. However she insisted that as she was the only radio operator left with the group she should stay, and keep SOE informed of what was happening. She tried to rebuild the Prosper group as it was called.

Noor was arrested in October and taken to Gestapo Headquarters. She was interrogated and although she remained silent they discovered a book in her possession where she had recorded the messages she had been sending and receiving. The Gestapo broke her code, and sent false messages to London, which ennabled them to capture three more secret agents landed in France.

Noor was taken to Germany and imprisoned at Karlsruhe. In the summer of 1944, Noor, and three other SOE agents, Yolande Beekman, Eliane Plewman and Madeleine Damerment, were moved to Dachau Concentration Camp. The four women were murdered by the SS on 12th September, 1944. In 1949 Noor Inayat Khan was posthumously awarded the George Cross.

See also:

 Her monument has been a long time coming, but welcome and timely, in a period of crisis, when the hatred and prejdices that led to the regime she fought and which murdered her and millions of others, are being whipped up again by the evil and unscrupulous. In honouring the memory of Noor Inayat Khan, as of the Algiers rebels and all who fought fascism, let us pledge to ensure that they did not die in vain.   .   

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