740.00112 European War 1939/3972

The Counselor of Embassy in France (Murphy), Temporarily at Algiers, to the Chief of the Division of Near Eastern Affairs (Murray)

Dear Wallace: I take pleasure in referring to that part of the letter of August 22, 1941,43 which I find on my return to Algiers, addressed by Mr. E. Wyndham White of the British Embassy to Harry Villard stating that Mr. White would be interested in any information available about the way in which the observer corps in North Africa is actually working. The rest of the letter which related to the breakdown of the S. S. Frimaire cargo has been answered by separate communication.

You, of course, know from recent telegrams and despatches what the American Vice Consuls, detailed as control officers under the plan of economic assistance, are doing. There are as you know a total of twelve vice consuls detailed to North Africa in that capacity, and one to Dakar. Our North African economic accord does not extend to [Page 318]French West Africa, but as the Department permitted a small quantity of petroleum products to go to Dakar by the S. S. Schéhérazade, an observer was sent along by that ship and has been functioning since July at that place.

The activities of the control officers in North Africa could well be classified under these headings:

1) Actual control work relating to the verification of imports and exports. Thus far the control of the movement of goods received from the United States has not provided a monumental task because only two small cargo ships and two tankers have arrived over the period of more than nine months of discussion and negotiation of this matter. As the population of North Africa is about eighteen millions, the actual deliveries made up to the present have not had a marked effect on the daily lives of the people. However, three additional ships should arrive at Casablanca shortly, and I hope this may revivify French interest in the matter and build up greater confidence. Some of this rather waned with the passage of months during which nothing much was produced as evidence that we really intended to cooperate with these people to an important degree. Some individuals who are friendly began to doubt our intentions, and others who are less friendly said “I told you so”.

With very few exceptions our control officers have been well received. It is a delicate business at the best for a foreign consular officer to dig around in ports, government offices, etc., for information regarding shipping, cargos, etc., in times such as the present when the fear of espionage is in the air everywhere, when the French authorities are doing what they can to oppose German Armistice Commission and Italian Armistice Commission control, and with the French Navy in charge of port activities. With regard to the latter I began to believe that naval officers are a class apart endowed with a heavy gift of suspicion which extends not only to foreigners, but more especially to their own army and civilian colleagues. In French North Africa they are no exception. Some of them are not friendly to the British and our officers at times are considered as undisguised British agents. However, when the first shipments actually arrived, as small as they were, I saw some of the incredulity existing on the part of certain naval officers, disappear. I might add in that connection that the incredulity of one Admiral was expressed in a reference he made to the American economic plan for North Africa as a “Trojan horse”.

In that connection also it should be remembered that General Weygand’s organization is principally army, and it is probably only to be expected that high ranking naval officers might regard his negotiations with us rather biliously. We had some discussions regarding the procedure to be followed by our control officers in the ports. I enclose a copy of a letter from General Weygand, dated September 16, 1941,44 which outlines the procedure as it now stands. This has the approval of Admiral Darlan.44a The procedure is not perfect but I believe that it is satisfactory for the present. As further shipments arrive I am confident that the rough edges will wear off.

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It should not be forgotten that the German and Italian Armistice Commission representatives are watching our men like hawks. We have evidence, however, that the French authorities tell them very little about our activity. Some of the complaints the Germans have made to the French about our men show that their information is distorted. Officially and socially our men are received by the French, entertained, taken on shooting parties, and the like. The Germans and Italians with rare exceptions are left severely alone socially, and kept under strict surveillance officially. There is of course police surveillance of our people. I have been shown one or two of the reports on them. The French ask that they be prudent and not expose themselves to charges of dissemination of propaganda or other activities which would lay them open to German and Italian attack. We are doing our best to cooperate in this respect and thus far, aside from a trivial incident or two, there has fortunately been no complaint.

2) Military, naval and shipping information. I hope the Department is pleased with the volume and character of the data which the men are obtaining under these headings. For one who has not lived in belligerent territory under the peculiar circumstances now prevailing, with a vigilant German and Italian armistice commission personnel in the immediate vicinity, the delicacy of the task of obtaining information of this kind may not be apparent. The French have been obliged for obvious reasons to instruct officials and army and navy; officers to be most discreet in their conversation and contact with foreigners. To a great extent this is directed against Germans and Italians but the instructions can’t very well specify. As a result many officials simply clamp down the lid in respect of all foreigners with whom they avoid contact. I believe that our men really have done a satisfactory job thus far.

3) The observers naturally try their best to investigate and follow efforts at infiltration by the Germans and Italians. I have been quite frank with General Weygand in this connection emphasizing to him repeatedly that it is in the interest of France to have our men on the ground and able to give to our Government a reliable and accurate account of Axis activity. The data our men have obtained I find useful and interesting, and I hope that the Department is of that opinion. I believe that our officers constitute at present the only really authentic, impartial source of information on this subject. Obviously there is every sort of cafe rumor imaginable current in this regard. Some rumors have thousands and thousands of Germans and Italians all over the place. I hope that our consular reports have thrown some accurate light on the subject.

The officers also follow as best they can developments regarding shipments of supplies to Libya, and similar matters.

4) Naturally also our observers do their best to promote what might be called “the cause”. In other words they emphasize in their conversations, and as tactfully as possible, our belief in a British victory, the aid of the United States, what the President and the Secretary have said publicly, etc. I believe that this is very important. Individuals whose judgment I respect have insisted repeatedly that the very presence of our consular officers is a source of comfort and inspiration to the French. At Oran, for example, we have had two Vice Consuls stationed since last July. Oran, which as you know adjoins Mers-el-Kebir, is an important naval headquarters and shipping center. When [Page 320]the Vice Consuls arrived they found a good bit of the population wallowing in anglophobia, much of which resulted from the British attack on the French Navy at Mers-el-Kebir on July 3, 1940, during which about fourteen hundred French sailors were killed. I don’t pretend that two American Vice Consuls can eradicate that sentiment, but I do believe that their presence and activity have counteracted some of the animosity, and diminished also the conviction which many entertained that Germany could not lose the war. The Vice Consuls have obtained some useful information both at Oran, Nemours and other points in that area.

Contacts with the Arab population are being made tactfully and I believe developed in a manner which is valuable. I have had several of the officers travel as much as possible and two are just finishing a tour of southern Morocco which is considered useful. They have managed to talk to a number of interesting Arab personalities and spread the news of the operation of the economic plan and allied subjects. Our men in Tunisia are also doing good work in this respect.

5) Copies of data on military, naval and other subjects are of course sent to Tangier by courier (we have a weekly courier service by plane Tunis–Algiers–Casablanca, and by automobile Casablanca–Tangier on which the observers take turns) for such use as our Chargé d’Affaires and Military Attaché at that place consider expedient.

I hope that the foregoing will give you a bird’s-eye view of the control officers’ activity. It should be remembered that these men were new to the service and came from most varied forms of outside activity in the United States. They have developed more satisfactorily than we could have hoped. They are all sincere, conscientious and willing men, all with an excellent knowledge of the French language, and some with a useful knowledge of military affairs. The only disappointment is that among them is not at least one well qualified in naval and merchant shipping matters. Knight44b at Oran has made a study of naval affairs as a hobby for some years, and King44c at Casablanca has a good working knowledge of some phases which he picked up here and there. The rest of us, I am afraid, might with luck be able to distinguish between the Dunkerque and a submarine on a bright sunny day.

I might also add that General Weygand’s organization and he himself have played ball with us in all important respects. My confidence in him is not diminished although I am conscious that were he more of a prima donna without the degree of loyalty which he has, we might look forward to more spectacular action one way or another. However, with a less dependable character, the result might be speculative or even disastrous.

Sincerely yours,

Robert D. Murphy
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[The voluminous reports of the control officers are not printed. These reports covered such subjects as use of American economic aid, military and naval information, shipping data, and political, social, and economic conditions in North Africa.]

  1. Not printed.
  2. Supra.
  3. Adm. Jean Francois Darlan, Vice President of the French Council of Ministers, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Navy, and Interior.
  4. Ridgeway Brewster Knight, Vice Consul at Algiers.
  5. David Wooster King, Vice Consul at Casablanca.