In the upper outer corridor of the Summer Palace, with its views of the palm fringed courtyard below, the young man was waiting with his gun. It was a no frills 7.65 Ruby automatic pistol, one of thousands a Spanish small arms manufacturer had supplied the French Army during the First World. Some of the offices along the narrow corridor were already deserted for the holiday. Nonetheless he had been assured that, however long his Christmas Eve lunch, the admiral would be back because he would want to read his latest telegrams. At about 3.30pm he heard footsteps, the murmur of voices then, rather surprisingly perhaps, laughter.

The assassination of Admiral François Darlan on 24 December 1942 came 44 days after he had given the Allies an enormous strategic advantage by ordering a ceasefire that gifted Vichy French North Africa to an Anglo-American invasion force.  ‘Darlan’s murder,’ admitted Churchill in his history of World War Two, ‘relieved the Allies of their embarrassment for working with him and left them with all the advantages he had been able to bestow.’

In both London and Washington, even a Washington that still maintained a US embassy in Vichy almost a year after America was at war with Germany, Darlan had long been regarded as an opportunistic Nazi stooge and not always a very clever one. In the spring of 1941 he had precipitated the successful British invasion of Syria by allowing the Luftwaffe to blatantly transit its airfields to provide air support for an abortive rebellion against the monarchy Britain paid for in neighbouring Iraq.

As well as being Marshal Petain’s deputy Darlan had been supreme commander of all of Vichy France’s military assets, which, apart from its home fleet in Toulon, were mostly deployed in its African colonies.  Darlan himself was based in Vichy and his presence in Algiers in time for the Allies’ Operation Torch entirely happenstance.

He had recently inspected Vichy’s North African possessions and was not contemplating another visit until the early part of 1943. Then at short notice he flew back to be with his wife Berthe at the hospital bedside of their only child, a reserve naval lieutenant whose employers imported foodstuffs to France and was often in Algiers. Alain Darlan, who was 28, had recently been diagnosed with poliomyelitis and his condition had suddenly worsened. He had a high fever and was not expected to live.

But by the eve of Torch he had rallied and, though he would never fully recover the use of his legs, was out of danger. Darlan had intended to return to Vichy the next day. Instead, in the early hours of the morning he found himself in a face-to-face meeting with Robert Murphy, the Algiers based US Minister to French North Africa, who has just told him that the Allies had landed in overwhelming force. ‘I have known for a long time the British were stupid,’ a stunned Darlan told him. ‘But I always believed the Americans were more intelligent.’

Over the next 48 hours 1600 Allied troops had been killed. Most of them were from the American infantry the Allied planners had believed the French might be reluctant to fire on. They were under no illusions about their willingness to shoot at the British who had been fighting a war within a war against the Vichy French for the last two years starting in July 1940 with the 1297 French sailors killed at Mers el-Kebir because Churchill would not risk their ships falling into Axis hands. Darlan had been incandescent. He wanted war with the British while stocks lasted for he was convinced that the Germans would soon finish them off. Marshal Pétain, the octogenarian hero of Verdun who had made himself Vichy’s chief of state, persuaded him to settle for breaking off diplomatic relations.

In November 1942 it had been Pétain urging Darlan to go to war. His resistance would buy time for the Germans to send troops from Sicily to Tunisia and drive the Allies, or the Anglo-Saxons as the Marshal preferred to call them, out of French North Africa.  Even more important, it might just persuade Hitler not to tear up the 1940 Armistice agreement and send troops into unoccupied France to defend Fortress Europe against the prospect of a new Allied threat from the Mediterranean’s southern shore.

While 500 French sailors died in hopelessly one-sided engagements with a huge Anglo-American fleet, Darlan stalled. He refused to expand the local ceasefire being observed in Algiers until Hitler gave him what he wanted. Then in the early hours of 11 November, the 24th anniversary of Germany’s surrender in 1918, the Führer ended Vichy France’s unoccupied status with a panzer division.

Darlan promptly declared that the Armistice was broken and Pétain a prisoner. He explained that as his deputy, ‘whilst remaining personally loyal to him’ he was entitled to act in the best interests of France and endorse the ceasefire in his name. ‘In fact, if Admiral Darlan had to shoot Marshal Pétain he would no doubt do so in Marshal Pétain’s name,’ said a gleeful Churchill when he explained this Gallic sophistry to a secret session of the House of Commons.

There was a price. In return for his astonishing volte face the prime minister and Roosevelt agreed to the admiral’s proposal that he be appointed High Commissioner for French North Africa. On both sides of the Atlantic there was an outcry at such blatant realpolitik. ‘Soon the retching will begin,’ predicted de Gaulle. And he was right. Darlan was becoming an embarrassment.

In Algiers and Oran the essence of Vichy was being kept alive. Newspaper editorials began to ask why the Allies had rewarded a man who had not even had the decency to repeal anti-Semitic by-laws or disband a jack booted militia alleged to have sniped at Allied troops.

As Christmas approached, Churchill reminded Roosevelt of the admiral’s ‘odious record’ and added: ‘We must not overlook the serious political injury which may be done to our cause, not only in France, by the feeling that we are ready to make terms with local Quislings.’

Darlan’s murder, as the prime minister would later admit, benefitted everybody. Was Churchill being disingenuous? Those who believe he was point out that Sir Stewart Menzies, wartime head of MI6, happened to be in Algiers at the time and Menzies hardly ever left London. But the weight of evidence, admittedly circumstantial, suggests that in the end the Anglo-Americans stepped aside and allowed nature to take its course. De Gaulle did it.

There is no doubt who pulled the trigger. Fernand Bonnier, aged 20, was born in Algiers where his father was a senior editor on the L’Oran Républicain, a leftish publication unpopular with Pétainists and rigorously censored. His son’s politics inclined more to the romantic right.

An alumni of Paris’ prestigious Lycée Stanislas (another old boy was Christian Dior), on his return to Algiers in 1941 he fell in with those royalists convinced that restoring the Orléanist monarchy in the form of Henri, Count of Paris would solve all of France’s problems. One of their leaders was the aristocratic Henri d’Astier de la Vigerie, younger brother of François who was an air force general on de Gaulle’s staff in London. This had helped them form a united front with the Gaullists who shared their concern about the way the Communists, just as Churchill had feared, were exploiting the Allies’ arrangement with Darlan. The Orléanists saw to it that Bonnier and others like him received some basic small arms training from recently arrived American and British instructors anxious to tap this reservoir of francophone talent for clandestine operations elsewhere.

Darlan was well aware that outside a loyal Vichy officer corps he would not win a popularity contest and, in an era where metal detectors were confined to minefields, security was tight. To get him into the Summer Palace Bonnier had a letter and forged papers indicating that he had an appointment with a civil servant on the floor below Darlan’s office. He was also equipped with a false passport to cross into Spanish Morocco and $2000 to look after himself there until it was safe to return. A sympathetic priest heard his confession and provided absolution for what he was about to do.

Bonnier put two bullets into Darlan, who never regained consciousness. A third entered the thigh of Captain Hourcade, the aide who had been sharing a joke with his boss as they returned from lunch. He had been instructed to make his escape by jumping through an open window onto the courtyard below. It turned out that the window was barred and, possibly because his old pistol jammed, he was overpowered by guards and badly beaten up.

Less than 48 hours later Bonnier was lying in an unmarked grave having been condemned by court martial on Christmas night and shot at dawn. This summary in camera justice seems to have been intended to prevent the outbreak of civil war between Vichy and Gaullist factions. The local press was forbidden to publish Bonnier’s name and the rumour was spread that Darlan had been killed by German agents for his turncoat deal with the Allies.

Bonnier had at first insisted that he acted alone, an unlikely story with the equivalent of almost $30,000 in today’s money on him. The police quickly established the Monarchist-Gaullist connection and even got as far arresting Henri d’Astier and the priest who granted Bonnier absolution; both were held for some months in a desert camp. By the end of the war the younger d’Astier brother was one of de Gaulle’s most decorated officers and in Algiers a court declared Bonnier a true patriot and annulled his conviction.

De Gaulle never admitted any involvement in Darlan’s death though he got into the habit of referring to it as ‘an execution’ and getting cross with people who used the A or the M word. In his 1942 Christmas Day radio broadcast he stuck to his script and made no direct mention of the late, breaking news from Algiers. What he did say, as he summed up the year’s events was: ‘France sees, on the horizon, her star rising again.’

Colin Smith is the author of England’s Last War Against France: Fighting Vichy 1940-1942, published in 2010.

Tags: Biography, Christmas, France, History, World War Two