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Historians have so thoroughly fished the drama of World War II that it is hard to believe the subject still has prize catches to offer up, but here comes a keeper:
Tim Brady's "Twelve Desperate Miles," about Operation Torch in November 1942, when the Allies made their first big move against the Axis Powers by invading ports along the Moroccan, Algerian and Tunisian coasts.
The hope was to wrest away the French colonies, then governed by the pro-German Vichy government, and use western North Africa as a base for attacking the Germans to the east. Operation Torch had a more important goal, too: to force the Germans to commit more troops to Africa and the defense of southern Europe, thus taking pressure off the Russians in the east.
The operation's planning and execution involved prominent U.S. Army generals who would eventually play decisive roles in achieving victory less than three years later, including Dwight Eisenhower, George Patton, Mark Clark and Lucian Truscott, the man charged with studying the tactics of British commando forces and creating an American counterpart. The North African landings would be the first test of what Truscott had learned. Mr. Brady gives us vivid portraits of these major figures, but he also tells the story of some of the lesser-known—though no less interesting—characters who were integral to the success of Operation Torch. Most impressively, he conveys the campaign in an almost novelistic way, bringing seemingly disparate figures and incidents into an engaging narrative.
The book's subtitle, about "the epic World War II voyage of the SS Contessa," refers to a New Orleans-based banana boat of the Standard Fruit Co. that was pressed into wartime service. But the story is about much more than one ship. Three Allied task forces, sailing from America and Britain, eventually delivered 300 ships and 110,000 troops to North Africa. The forces would pour ashore at landing sites at Casablanca, Oran and Algiers, but one crucial target was a dozen miles inland, up the Sebou River: the Moroccan airfield at Port Lyautey.
The Allies needed the airfield to support the attack on Casablanca about 70 miles away, but the Sebou was shallow even at high tide. They would need an experienced pilot to navigate the rivers, and they found him in René Malevergne, a French-born seaman living in Morocco and Mr. Brady's primary character. Malevergne knew every bend and sandbar of the Sebou. Two years before Operation Torch, Malevergne had been caught up in a failed French Resistance plot in Morocco to smuggle out 40 Belgian pilots. He was indicted for participating in the plot but acquitted by a Vichy court. Mr. Brady uses this earlier episode to introduce Malevergne to the reader and to paint a picture of the tensions in North Africa between the Vichy government, on the one hand, and, on the other, the native-born Moroccans and French citizens there, whose loyalties often belonged to Free France. He also details the North African activities of the Gestapo, the French Resistance, the OSS (America's wartime intelligence service), and the civilians and refugees caught between these warring parties. After Malevergne's trial and his return to Morocco, he was smuggled out of the country by OSS agents and brought to the U.S. for the naval mission. The Contessa was officially piloted, the author notes, by Capt. William Henry John, a Welsh seaman who had settled in New Orleans after World War I. In 1918, Capt. John had been a 25-year-old navigator on a Royal Navy destroyer that sank a German U-boat in the Mediterranean. Karl Dönitz, a lieutenant on that U-boat who survived the attack, was by 1940 the rear admiral in charge of the German U-boats patrolling the Atlantic. The Contessa was rushed into service so quickly that it put to sea without most of its usual crew, who were on leave in far-flung places after completing a supply-convoy run to England. Other able seamen were found in Norfolk, Va.—including sailors who had enjoyed their own liberty ashore so enthusiastically that they were being deprived of it at the county jail. Delayed by the crew shortage, the Contessa had to race unescorted to catch up with its convoy in the mid-Atlantic. Accompanied by the destroyer USS Dallas, the Contessa, carrying 500 tons of volatile airplane fuel and 900 tons of bombs, snaked up the "twelve desperate miles" of the book's title, taking fire from the Vichy French along the way and edging past mines. "To navigate both the fearsome entrance to the Sebou and its shallow, bending path to the port was the work of an expert," Mr. Brady writes.
Malevergne's knowledge of tides and the Sebou River proved invaluable as the Allies took Port Lyautey and the airfield—and the Contessa's cargo reached its destination. Many of the details of this tricky journey come from "The Exfiltration of René Malevergne," an unpublished diary of the Frenchman's wartime exploits. Mr. Brady, borrowing the manuscript from the family, makes good use of it. The successful outcome of Operation Torch may not be a mystery, but Mr. Brady tells the story in a style that will keep readers on the edge of their seats, wondering how a combination of the tides, the French, the Germans, the Allies and pure luck will ultimately play out. In the event, the Vichy French fell quickly—so quickly, in fact, that the Contessa's mission to the airfield, engaging though the story is, turned out to be superfluous. "None of the munitions or gasoline that the Contessa carried up the Sebou were used in Operation Torch," Mr. Brady says. "Not a single P-40 got into the air before hostilities in French Morocco came to a conclusion." Then why tell the story? One good reason: Operation Torch showed, at a time when U.S. naval prowess in the Atlantic was doubted by many, that America and its allies could set "forces down on a particular series of beaches on a notoriously volatile coastline" and prevail. You close "Twelve Desperate Miles" with a satisfying sense that two years later, on another particular series of beaches on another dangerous coast, all will be well.
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