Lighting the Torch in Algiers

On November 8, 1942, as Allied forces prepared their landing in north-west Africa, in Operation Torch, some 400 ill-armed rebels seized strategic buildings in Algiers, with the aim of paralysing Vichy resistance and opening the way for the Allies. The prizes they captured that night included Admiral Darlan, no.2 in the Vichy regime. More than half the rebels were Algerian Jews. Coming almost six months before the Warsaw ghetto revolt, their action can be considered the first major act of Jewish armed resistance in the War, and perhaps the most successful. Yet their contribution to Allied victory, and how they were treated, are missing from many histories. In this article, first published in Jewish Socialist in Winter 2012-3, Charlie Pottins looks at the background and events of the revolt.



COLETTE ABOULKER decorated with Croix de Guerre, Algiers, 1948

ON November 8 1942,  Allied forces invaded North Africa in  Operation Torch. Mongomery's 8th army had defeated Rommel's Afrika Corps at El Alamein and begun driving Axis forces back from the borders of Egypt. Landing in the west, at Casablanca, Oran and Algiers, the Allies would commence a pincer movement,  driving Rommel out through Tunisia, and preparing to invade southern Europe.

The United States hoped the Vichy French, bitterly anti-British since their fleet was sunk at Mers el Kebir, might be won over if Torch was presented as an American operation. The overall commander was General Eisenhower. Secret approaches had been made to senior French commanders.

In Algiers, not everyone relied on these. On the eve of the Allied landings, less than 400 poorly-armed rebels set out to seize strategic buildings, throttle Vichy communications, and open the city to the invaders.  More than half the insurgents  were Algerian Jews. 

Jews had lived in the Maghreb countries of north-west Africa since antiquity. The 14th century Arab historian Ibn Khaldun wrote of mountain Berber tribes that adhered to Judaism.  Later came refugees from Spain,  and merchants from Italy, who  prospered under Ottoman rule.

  The French invasion in 1830 brought destruction and disease to Algeria. The indigenous population declined by nearly a third, but 50,000 Europeans emigrated to Algeria. Settlers obtained land confiscated by the French army. Modern agricultural technique increased  its productivity. But this did not benefit uprooted felaheen.

For Algerian Jews a major change took place after French Justice Minister Adolphe Cremieux  introduced a decree on October 24, 1870

"The Israelites native to the departments of Algeria are declared French citizens; consequently, their real status and their personal status shall be, dating from the promulgation of the present decree, regulated by French law, with all rights acquired until this day inviolable."


The Jews of Algeria accepted becoming French as a way to emancipation and progress. But they were by no means embraced by the settlers. Big land owners wanted cheap labour, and opposed anything which raised the aspirations of the natives, Moslem or Jew.  Europeans lower down the scale, a mixture of Italians and Maltese as well as French, cemented their identity with racism, jealously guarding their status with imported hatred against the Jew.

In 1881, on the eve of elections, Europeans attacked the Jewish quarters at Tlemcen.  Jews fought back with sticks and stones. In 1896, antisemites gained control of the city council at Constantine, and sacked Jewish employees. Jewish sick were denied admission to the hospital, and children put out of schools. The explanation was that "The young Israelites bring to school all sorts of contagious diseases and constitute a danger to classmates. "

 In January 1897 rioters attacked Jewish premises in Algiers, killing two men and severely injuring over 100 people. In May there were anti-Jewish pogroms in Oran. The police did little to intervene. In January 1898,  the Dreyfus Affaire divided France, and fuelled antisemitic riots in Algiers. In May that year,  Edouard Drumont, author of Le France Juive, was one of four antisemitic deputies  elected in Algeria.

In the First World War, at least 2,000 Algerian Jews died for France on various fronts. The Algerian Jews organised both religious and secular institutions. A social survey in 1931 found them in varied occupations, from day labourers (1,172) and ordinary workers (18,032) through skilled trades and salaried commercial employees to the professions, and 7,987 employers.

Antagonism began to come from more than one direction. In Constantine on August 5, 1934, a rumour  that Jews had defiled a mosque led thousands of Muslims to attack Jews. The police did nothing to stop them.  Some 25 Jews were killed in this outburst. Besides worsening social conditions, and jealousy of Jews' status, external influences were at work. Nazi propaganda was reaching the Maghreb as well as the Middle East.

The French press presented the Constantine pogrom as an expression of centuries-old hatred between Muslims and Jews. Algerian Jews denied this. Maurice Violette a governor of Algeria told the French senate in 1935  "If there is antisemitism in Algeria, you can be sure that it is the Europeans who activate it".

In the Autumn of 1938 Jacques Doriot, a former Communist turned fascist, toured Algeria and convened a congress of his Parti Populaire Francaise (PPF).  "We have launched the mot d'ordre of abrogation of the Cremieux decree because the mass of Jews are making a bloc with the parties of the Left, imperilling the sovereignty of the colonial French,  the men of Empire".  Doriot solicited funds and weapons from fascist Italy. 

From The Fall to Resistance   

Following France's surrender on June 22, 1940, its northern half fell under Nazi occupation. Marshall Petain's government at Vichy retained control of the south and overseas territories, including the colony of Algeria and protectorates in Morocco and Tunis. Petain's government adopted the Statut des Juifs in October 1940, aimed at removing Jews from public life and employment.  On October 7, 1940 the Cremieux Decree was abolished.  In August 1941, Xavier Vallat, a member of Action Francaise,  appointed  head of the Commissariat-General for Jewish Questions, arrived in Algiers. A delegation of wounded and decorated Jewish ex-servicemen appealed to him as an old soldier to mitigate the antisemitic policies. To no avail.

On September 15, 1941 it was announced that anti-Jewish legislation would be applied as strictly in North Africa as in metropolitan France.  This was hard to enforce in Morocco and Tunisia, which had fewer colonists and were only protectorates.  Morocco's King Mohammed V announced that the Jews of Morocco were his subjects and not subject to French law.

Vichy's man in North Africa, General Weygand, signed an order excluding Jewish pupils from schools. Some teachers taught Jewish pupils at home. There was even an underground university running courses until the authorities clamped down on it. Some Jewish pupils were accepted at Muslim schools.

Whatever resentment there was towards Jews among the Muslim population,  politically educated Arabs were not impressed by the French measures. Ferhat Abbas, who had once hoped Muslims could obtain equality as French citizens, took  abolition of the Cremieux Decree as confirming that Algerians must seek their own freedom, and not trust the French.

"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"

According to Jose Aboulker, a leader of Jewish resistance:

"They didn’t take part in the war. It wasn’t their war. With the Jews, they were perfectly all right. Not only did they refuse to participate in the anti-Jewish abuse the Germans and the Vichy government tried to push them to do, but, while the colonists were fighting over the Jewish possessions, they even resisted the temptation to buy them at low price and make huge profits. The instructions were given in the mosques: the Jews are going through hard times, they are our brothers."

The French authorities blamed  Arab disaffection on Jewish incitement.    In fact, apart from a few communists, and individuals prepared to identify with Arab nationalism, the majority of Jews in Algeria remained French patriots, despite everything they had suffered. But that did not mean they would not fight back.

In October 1940 a group of young Jews who had been demobilised from the French forces acquired a 4.5 ton cutter, intending to sail it to Gibraltar, and enlist with the Free French. Their plan was discovered and the French admiralty seized their boat.  Dr. Raphael Aboulker, a surgeon and son of a leading Jewish family, persuaded them they would be needed in Algeria. This group  would all play their part in the November 8 1942 rising.

Raphael and Maurice Aboulker were members of a Jewish aid committee formed to help those ousted from their jobs or professions. The committee organised its own  schools and services. A former boxer called Geo Gras provided premises for a gymnasium. A self-defence organisation was  set up there, enlisting about 250 Jewish youth. From training as defence squads they turned to modest resistance. "V" for victory signs appeared on walls overnight, followed by anti-Vichy posters. News received by radio from London was transcribed into clandestine leaflets. There were acts of sabotage on the docks.

In Oran, Roger Carcassonne, in trouble in his army unit for distributing De Gaulle's June 18 1940 call for Resistance, was demobbed on August 28. He  set about heading for England via Gibraltar together with his brother Pierre. But the Vichy police and navy had the coast well guarded. So like the young men in Algiers, the brothers turned to forming an underground group. In March 1941, a friend introduced Carcassonne to Henri d'Astier de la Vigerie, a military intelligence officer and former Royalist who had become anti-Nazi and wanted to organise resistance. Then in August, in Algiers, Roger Carcassonne met his cousin, 20 year old medical student Jose Aboulker. They agreed to keep in touch, and to turn from propaganda to preparing armed struggle. 

Carcassonne, diverted funds from his company to the resistance. Jose Aboulker made contact with Roger Maria of  the underground Communist Party of Algeria. Many of its members were in Saharan concentration camps. The party secretary, Kadour Belkaim, had died in a dungeon in July 1940.    Though worried at first that young Aboulker's plan might prove an adventure, the Party promised 60 combattants.

Bernard Karsenty , born in 1920 in Oran, was a soldier in Marseilles when France surrendered. Heeding De Gaulle's appeal in June 1940,  he returned to Algeria in November 1941, hoping to reach Gibraltar from there. Instead he joined the resistance network formed by Roger Carcassonne and José Aboulker.


Uncle Sam Enters the War

The United States, not yet at war when France fell, recognised the Vichy regime as the legitimate government of France. When the Free French navy seized the islands of St.Pierre and Miquelon, off Newfoundland, from Vichy control, on December 24, 1941, the US State Department wanted Canada to restore the Vichyites.  There was a public outcry, and the US backed off. But it still would not trust De Gaulle.

The US consul general in Algiers, Robert Murphy negotiated with the antisemitic governor Weygand, agreeing that United States goods could be shipped  to the Vichy French in Algeria, through the British naval blockade. Murphy complained that the British press was "waging a campaign" against US relations with (Vichy) France.

After the United States entered the war, and accepted British plans to invade north-west Africa, Murphy was instructed to  meet some different Frenchmen. Lieutenant Colonel Germain Jousse was gathering intelligence, and arms, to assist an Allied invasion. His  Committee of Five formed in 1941 to support resistance, included Astier de la Vigery, who was in touch with the Jewish resisters.

On the night of October 22, 1942 the conspirators met at a farmhouse west of Cherchell, on the coast. Bernard Karsenty was responsible for security. They were joined by General Charles Mast, commander of the garrison in Algiers.  Eisenhower's deputy, General Mark Clark, came ashore by kayak from the British submarine Seraph, bringing with him a US carbine that was handed to Bernard Kansenty, with promises of more weapons to come. After this, resisters went down to the beach on several nights, but the supplies never arrived.


Rising up on Saturday Night 

Algiers resisters had been meeting at a store owned by the Calvet brothers. It stood on a flatiron corner between two streets, so people could enter by one entrance and leave by another, confusing surveillence. Guy Calvet-Cohen, a former police officer, was a leading member of their conspiracy.

However the Aboulker family home at 26 rue Michelet was to be the headquarters for the rising on the night of November 7-8. An American technician had installed a radio transmitter. As the volunteers arrived, often needing a rest and a bite to eat before they were briefed, Colette Aboulker, the daughter of the house, her room lined with maps, was like a 'guardian angel' .

The plan was for 800 volunteers to set off in groups to seize strategic buildings, neutralise port defences, and paralyse communications. They would be facing altogether 11,000 Vichy troops plus 2,000 members of the Service de L'Ordre Legionaire militia, and several hundred of Doriot's PPF fascists.

Colonel Jousse had provided VP (civil militia) armbands with which the rebels hoped to confuse the opposition. Jose Aboulker had obtained blank order forms signed by General Mast, on which he typed letters authorising them to take over buildings.  Some old buses would take the rebels to action.

 By zero hour fewer than 600 volunteers had showed up. Many melted away as they realised neither the numbers nor the promised weapons had arrived. In the end about 377 rebels went into action, including  200 Jewish volunteers. Among others who distinguished themselves that night were a detachment of pupils from the Lycee Ben Haknoun, led by a cadet called Pauphilet.

Despite setbacks the operation proceded largely according to plan. Paul Ruff and fifteen men took over the central telephone exchange. Maurice Hayom, a young lawyer, led the group which took the Palais d'Ete, seat of the governor general. Jose Aboulker, with his 20 men, took over the Central Police station.

By 3am on Sunday morning Algiers was lagely in the hands of the insurgents. Outside the head post office a Vichy unit under white flag approached Lieutenant Jean Dreyfus, and argued who should surrender to whom. As Dreyfus returned to his side, a Vichy sniper shot him in the back. The man responsible was decorated  with the croix de guerre. At the central police station, Guy Pillafort, a Free French captain who was with Jose Aboulker's group was gunned down from a  passing car by a Vichy colonel.


The Allied forces were delayed.  General Mast had promised his forces would not fight back, but his command did not extend to Oran, or to the navy. Two British destroyers trying to enter Algiers harbour with US rangers came under heavy fire.  Along the coast several US units had landed on the wrong beaches. Colonel Jousse and General Mast met the US 34th Infantry Divsion, urging them to hasten into the city before Vichy forces regained control.

General Henri Giraud was picked up from Toulon by the British submarine HMS Seraph, disguised as a US vessel, and taken to Gibraltar to meet General Eisenhower, who wanted him to assume command of French forces in Algeria.  Giraud stalled, waiting to see what happened. By the time he flew  into Algiers on November 9,  someone else was in charge.


The Admiral and the Duke of Windsor's Friend

Students from the Ben Aknoun lycee had surrounded the Villa des Olives and captured General Alphonse Juin, commander in chief of French forces in north Africa. With him was Admiral Francois Darlan, the number two in the Vichy regime, who was in Algiers to visit his son in hospital.

Robert Murphy brought a message from President Roosevelt inviting General Juin to order surender and come over to the Allies. Juin said they should give this to Darlan. Darlan asked permission to send a message to Marshall Petain, care of Admiral Leclerc. In it he ordered Vichy forces to resist, and to alert the Germans.  Darlan's message was intercepted by the resistance, but Murphy gave him another go. Thus Vichy naval forces received the order to attack US commandos landing in the harbour. Vichy gendarmery recaptured the Villa, freeing Juin and Darlan. It was another two days before Darlan was persuaded to negotiate a surrender, one which let him become governor of Algieria.

Darlan was not the only prize visitor taken that night.  Millionaire industrialist Charles Bedaux, who had introduced the Duke and Duchess of Windsor to Hitler, was in Algiers to supervise construction of a trans-Saharan pipeline for the Germans. Having capured Bedaux, Guy Calvet had all his business papers collected, and photographed. The documents disappeared. US agents who came to take Bedaux, an American citizen, back to the United States admitted they had the originals but insisted Calvet also hand over his copies. Bedaux committed suicide in prison in Miami, Florida, while awaiting a grand jury investigation.


Plus ca change,....

Algeria had changed hands, but anti-Jewish laws remained in place.  On November 15, Giraud ordered conscription of Jewish youth. but only to labour battalions, so they could not bear arms. Jewish children remained forbidden to attend schools, and professionals not alowed to practice. Over 1,000 Jews were in camps, along with Spanish republicans, Algerian nationalists, International Brigaders and communists.

At Hadjerat M'Gul there were 170 prisoners who had suffered forced labour, hunger, disease, torture and murder.  Two of the nine prisoners killed there were Jews, one of them a young refugee from Germany.  His parents, who were in London, committed suicide.

At Djelfa, on an empty plateau 1,100 meters above sea level, under a blazing sun by day and freezing at night, were 4,000 internees, mostly former International Brigaders. Living in tents until huts could be built, most slept in their work clothes because they had nothing else to wear. Insects swarmed around the open latrines, and because of the lack of hygene prisoners had chronic diarrhoea. Many had ulcers on their arms and legs. To make up their lack of food, the prisoners caught rats, but they were punished if caught lighting a fire for heat or cooking. Commandant Caboche ordered machine guns trained on the road after November 8, to hold up American liberators. He needn't have worried.

They did not come.

On the afternoon of December 24, 1942, 20-year old Fernand Bonnier de La Chapelle entered Darlan's headquarters in Algiers and shot the Admiral dead. The young man was executed by firing squad on December 26. General Giraud, who took over Darlan's position as Commissioner,  had resistance members, including Jose Aboulker and his father, rounded up, and thrown into the Saharan camps.

Arthur Roseborough, the head of the OSS desk in Algiers, went to see Robert Murphy, begging him to help get them released. "American honour is at stake".

"Art old fellow," Murphy replied, " if you have nothing better to do in Africa than to worry about those Jews and Communists who helped us, why don't you just go home?" 

(Donald Downes, The Scarlet Thread.  Downes was an American journalist working with the OSS in North Africa).

Giraud claimed the "conspirators" had planned to assassinate Robert Murphy too. Fortunately, Colette Aboulker had escaped, and managed to contact  Murphy, who did nothing, but she also spoke to  British journalists in Algiers.  Churchill had already written privately to Roosevelt on December 9, voicing disquiet that fascist organisations remained active in Algeria while Allied sympathisers were imprisoned.

Prisoners in the Sahara camps begged to be freed to join Allied forces. In March 1943 a Red Cross officer came to Djerba, and later US Quakers brought used clothing, rice, sugar, and condensed milk. In April 1943 a British officer, Major Brister was able to get internees released for the Pioneer Corps, among them 65 Jewish internees.  Eventually, as a result of international concern and the replacement of Giraud's regime by De Gaulle's Free French, steps were taken to close the camps, and release the prisoners, and the anti-Jewish measures were gradually phased out.


Was it worth it?

 Unlike fellow-Jews who rose up six months later in Warsaw, those who rose in Algiers were not choosing a martyr's death over extermination. They fought alongside non-Jewish allies in the name of France, and freedom. But by helping the Allies,  they stopped the Nazi genocide spreading, and helped bring its end nearer.

At the Nazis' Wannsee conference in January 1942, North Africa was not directly mentioned. But the figure of 700,000 Jews to be deported from "France, unoccupied territory" indicates that the Jews of the Maghreb were to be included. Theodore Dannecker, head of the Gestapo's anti-Jewish section in Paris, planned to deport the Algerian Jews to Auschwitz, but was thwarted by shortage of transport.            

In July 1942, a month after Rommel's tanks entered the Libyan port of Tobruk, and threatened Egypt, SS-Standartenführer Walter Rauff, inventor of the mobile gas chamber for killing Jews and partisans on the eastern front, arrived in north Africa  entrusted with a similar mission. 

 When the Nazis were forced back to Tunisia, Rauff's einsatzkommando concentrated its work there. Some 2,500 Tunisian Jews died in slave camps, mainly from typhoid, while the Nazis plundered the Jews of Djerba island and other communities. Had the Nazis not been driven back from the gates of the Middle East and the Maghreb they could have finished what they started.



What happened to....?

Freed from captivity, Jose Aboulker went to London to join the Free French. In October 1943 he was despatched secretly into occupied France, to organise medical services for the Resistance.  Later, representing the Algerian Resistance in De Gaulle's Provisional Consultative Assembly, Jose Aboulker proposed changing the electoral law in Algeria to allow the election of Muslim deputies, who had never previously been admitted.

Thousands of Muslims fought in de Gaulle's forces and took part in the liberation of France. On May 8, 1945, as Europe celebrated victory over Hitler, Arabs who turned up with their own banners at demonstrations in Setif, Algeria, were fired on by French gendarmes. This led to riots, in which settlers were killed. French forces retaliated by killing thousands of people in the area. Back in France, Jose Aboulker, who joined the French Communist Party, tried to tell people what had happened.  He told the French National Assembly that Algerians wanted independence. Later, Aboulker resumed his medical studies in Paris, going on to become a professor of neurosurgery.

Colette Aboulker, having worked in a military hospital in Algiers, was awarded  a Croix de Guerre for her wartime activities. She gained an international reputation in psychology and alternative medicine. Married to a scientist, and with two sons, one of them a professor at the Sorbonne, she died in 2003 in Jerusalem.

Robert D. Murphy held various diplomatic postings after the war, and was President Eisenhower's personal representative during the 1958 Lebanon Crisis.  After a stint at the State Department in 1959,  Murphy was an adviser to Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. In 2006, he was featured on a United States postage stamp.



Walter Rauff the Nazi responsible for  killing 100,000 people, escaped justice after the war, and served various governments, including the Syrian secret police and, it is said, MI6 and Mossad. Working for Pinochet's secret police DINA, in Chile, Rauff died there peacefully in 1984.

In the 1950s and 1960s  the Jews of Algeria found themselves caught between French settler intransigeance and the Algerian independence struggle. The Front de Liberation National (FLN) urged Jews to throw in their lot with their fellow Algerians, but  indiscriminate terror attacks, and the adoption of Islam as part of national identity did not encourage confidence. Israeli agents coming to assist Jewish security may have had the opposite effect, particularly when some sided with the settlers' OAS. The great majority of Algerian Jews left the country, ending centuries of history, to try their chances in France or Israel.  Some fared better than others.  But the real loss was to Algeria.


(article previously published in Jewish Socialist  no.65, Winter 2012-2013)  

Posted: 5 December 2014