François Darlan, born on August 7, 1881 in Nérac (Lot-et-Garonne) and died on December 24, 1942 in Algiers, was a French admiral and politician.
Head of the French Navy at the beginning of the Second World War, he was Minister of the Navy in the first government of the Vichy regime and then, in February 1941, head of the Vichy government where he was involved in Marshal Pétain”s policy of collaboration with Nazi Germany.
Replaced by Pierre Laval in April 1942, Darlan remained commander-in-chief of the Vichy forces. Present in Algiers during the Allied landing in North Africa in November 1942, he reluctantly and hesitantly joined the Allies. From then on, the admiral exercised power over part of France”s African colonies, before being assassinated a few weeks later.
Born in Nérac in the Lot-et-Garonne, he was the son of Jean-Baptiste Darlan (1848-1912), a progressive republican deputy who had served as Keeper of the Seals in the government of Jules Méline. François Darlan (1881-1942) grew up in a Republican and Freemason environment. His father, a Minister of Justice, tried to intervene in favor of Dreyfus. His mother was orphaned (like Philippe Pétain) at an early age and he was placed in a boarding school at the age of ten.
He entered the Naval School in 1899, graduated in 1901 and left to serve in the Far East in 1902. As a lieutenant and gunnery officer, he commanded a naval artillery battery during the First World War.
He benefited from the protection of a friend of his father, Georges Leygues, who had been Minister of the Navy under the Third Republic for a long time, and for whom he was deputy head and then head of the military cabinet almost without interruption from 1926 to 1934.
With a left-of-center sensibility due to his family heritage and his stints in the cabinets of Georges Leygues and Albert Sarraut, he was rapidly promoted: rear admiral in 1929, vice-admiral in 1932. From 1934 to 1936, he commanded the Atlantic Squadron in Brest, taking the rank and title of vice-admiral in 1936 during his term of office, and then being appointed commander-in-chief of the French Navy in 1937, he simultaneously took the rank and title of admiral. After the advent of the Popular Front, his ties to the center-left made him a candidate for the position of Chief of Staff of the Navy. This promotion, largely due to a career in the ministerial cabinets, earned him this remark from his opponents: “France has three admirals: Esteva, who has never known love; Darlan, who has never known the sea, and the true sea dog who has sailed all his life and who has never known Darlan. On June 6, 1939, he was made “Admiral of the Fleet,” a title created for him to give the head of the world”s fourth largest navy the weight he deserved in international conferences and protocol.
Agnostic and rather radical socialist, Darlan was attached to the values of secularism (but was not hostile to the Church), small property, patriotism and morality. The writer Simon Epstein notes that François Darlan was appreciated by Léon Blum and was favorable to the Spanish Republicans during the Spanish War.
In the international conferences of the inter-war period, Darlan vigorously defended France”s right to have a powerful navy against British claims.
During his career, Darlan had new naval units built and took advantage of the resulting appointments to create a network of relations, made up of naval officers whose advancement he favoured (those close to him were called “ADD”, i.e. “Friends of Darlan”, and those in the inner circle “ADF”, “Friends of François”). In 1939, thanks to Darlan, France possessed one of the most powerful navies in its history (even if it lacked naval aviation resources). In terms of tonnage, the French Navy ranked fourth in the world behind the British Royal Navy, the United States Navy and the Imperial Japanese Navy, and ahead of the Italian Regia Marina. Visiting Darlan”s HQ during the phoney war (May 5, 1940), Philippe Pétain, who was received with respect, exclaimed: “Finally something that works!
On June 14, 1940, Admiral Darlan refused to send the Toulon fleet to Bordeaux to evacuate military units that had been formed for North Africa, despite the instructions of Paul Reynaud, President of the Council. On June 18, 1940, Darlan initially refused the call to cease fighting issued the day before by Pétain. The navy continued the war, which allowed three ships to leave Brest with 1,100 tons of gold from the Banque de France, which were taken to Senegal for safekeeping. Once the defeat was over, he supported the request for an armistice. Afterwards, revolted by the British aggression at Mers el-Kébir, he felt betrayed by his former British comrades-in-arms, and wanted France to declare war on Great Britain, forgetting the many British demands since June 11, 1940 and the alliance treaty of March 28, 1940, which had not been respected. Pétain calmed him down by declaring “One defeat is enough”, and Darlan only obtained purely symbolic French reprisals, with the Council of Ministers deciding to break off diplomatic relations, despite the reluctance of the President of the Republic Albert Lebrun.
Darlan became Minister of the Merchant and Military Navy in the first Pétain government, then in the Vichy government. On 10 February 1941, he succeeded Pierre-Étienne Flandin as head of the government. His appointment also marked the important presence of admirals in Vichy with Admirals Platon, Auphan, and Esteva.
After the dismissal of Pierre Laval on December 13, 1940, he became Philippe Pétain”s designated successor by constitutional act 4 quater of the same day. Darlan headed the government until April 1942, when he in turn had to resign in favor of Pierre Laval, whose return had been forced by Germany and who was appointed on April 18, 1942. Admiral Darlan nevertheless remained the designated successor to the Head of State, and became Commander-in-Chief of the French forces.
The new French Navy, like the colonial empire, was to be the basis of the policy of collaboration that was largely initiated by Darlan, following his appointment as vice-president of the Council. This policy was the military application of the policy of collaboration that Pétain had publicly stated on 30 October 1940, the day after the Montoire meeting between Philippe Pétain and Adolf Hitler.
On December 25, 1940, Darlan went to Beauvais to meet with Hitler, in order to confirm the full collaboration of the Vichy regime. In exchange for economic and military collaboration with Germany, he hoped to obtain a revision of the Armistice. For him, the war would eventually be exhausting for the United Kingdom, which would eventually have to abandon continental Europe to the Germans, while the United States would control the seas, with the conflict moving to an intercontinental phase. In order to avoid the United Kingdom and Germany coming to an agreement at the expense of the French Empire, France had to draw closer to Germany politically. And in order to preserve a fleet necessary for the Germans to control the seas, when the war reached its intercontinental phase, France had to avoid any return to the conflict, thus maintaining a strict military neutrality, thus also preserving the Empire. He advocated collaboration with Germany, believing that France should participate in the establishment of a New Order in which France would use its Empire and its fleet to protect Europe, under the domination of the Reich.
From February 10, 1941, Darlan had considerable power, since he had four portfolios: of the Navy, Foreign Affairs, the Interior and Information.
In March 1941, Darlan was one of the architects of the creation of the General Commissioner for Jewish Questions, which was entrusted to Xavier Vallat. In April 1941, he pleaded with Germany for France, which had an authoritarian regime, to participate in a European customs union, by giving Europe the benefit of its colonial empire. However, he underestimated Hitler”s distrust of France.
At the time of Rachid Ali”s anti-British coup d”état in Iraq, on 3 April 1941, when the United Kingdom seemed weakened, Darlan hoped to obtain a reduction in the constraints resulting from the Armistice, in exchange for the delivery to Germany of an air base in Syria-Lebanon and stocks of arms from the French forces in the Levant to his anti-British Iraqi allies. To this end, he visited Hitler in Berchtesgaden on May 11, 1941, to grant, without hesitation, access to the Levant to the German army, despite the opposition of General Dentz, who stressed that this was a violation of the clauses of the armistice of June 22, 1940. After which, on May 14, he pleaded before the Council of Ministers for a wider collaboration. On May 15, 1940, Pétain sent a personal letter to Dentz saying, “I would like to personally insist to you on the high significance of the negotiations that the Admiral is currently conducting and on my personal desire to pursue this policy of collaboration without ulterior motives.
The Paris protocols were signed on May 28, 1941 by Darlan and Abetz. In anticipation of these agreements (part 1), and with the active approval of Pétain, who gave the order directly to General Dentz, a base was delivered to the Luftwaffe at Aleppo in Syria, while vehicles, artillery and ammunition were transferred to the Germans in North Africa, as well as in Syria, to the Iraqis fighting against the United Kingdom.
The other parts of the protocol signed in Paris by Darlan also provided for the delivery to the Germans of naval bases in Bizerte and Dakar (parts 2 and 3). These texts even stipulate that in the event of a British or American retaliation (although at that time the latter were still neutral) against the bases thus transferred to the Germans, the Vichy forces would have to defend them.
In return for his concessions, Darlan obtained only the authorization to transfer 10,000 men to French Africa to defend it against the Allies, and for the same purpose, the release of 961 officers, including General Juin, who was expressly designated. But no mass liberation of French prisoners. Thus, this fool”s bargain only helped Germany, and further committed the Vichy forces to collaboration, with the risk of British and American retaliation. Their premature application to the Levant alone resulted in the Syrian campaign.
Weygand denounced the serious risk of cobelligerence with Germany involved in these texts, in the absence of any serious counterpart. As for the Vichy government, it abstained from ratifying this text, citing the need for greater concessions. In this context, and after the loss of Syria (Damascus was conquered on 21 June, the day before Hitler invaded the USSR), Darlan raised the stakes from 8 July onwards. For the application of part 2 of the protocol (Bizerte) and part 3 (Dakar), he demanded substantial economic and political concessions in order to soften French public opinion. In the meantime, Hitler, following Operation Barbarossa, had himself renounced Dakar. Darlan specified his demands in a verbal note dated July 14, given to Abetz: the armistice agreement should be replaced by a treaty providing for the sovereignty and cooperation of France. Germany refused to make any concessions in exchange for Bizerte alone, considered the note to be a “naive attempt at blackmail” and Abetz was ordered to be more reserved (above all, not to promise a generous peace to France).
The Darlan-Kato agreements, signed on July 29, 1941, governed relations between the Empire of Japan and the Vichy government on the territory of French Indochina following the Japanese installation in 1940.
Although marked by the loss of the Levant and the failure of the Paris Protocols, Darlan pulled himself together, convinced of the rightness of his policy. He had to remain allied with Germany in order not to lose Africa, nor his place in the Vichy government. He strengthened his power and became Minister of National Defense. He was thus able to determine the use of the armed forces and their general organization, as well as the conditions of their use. Relations between the navy and the army were not very cordial, as the military could not stand being commanded by a sailor. Darlan entered into open conflict with Weygand and Huntziger. Chance served Darlan well with the death of General Huntziger in a plane crash. As for Weygand, the Admiral”s maneuvers with the Germans led to his recall, following a German ultimatum. Juin, who had been released under the Paris Protocols, was immediately appointed to the higher command in North Africa.
On December 1, 1941, Rommel”s difficulties in Africa rekindled negotiations: a meeting took place at Saint-Florentin, in the Yonne region, between Darlan, Pétain and Goering. Pétain handed the Reich Marshal a seven-point memorandum that took up the old dispute in order to obtain a sincere political collaboration based on the recognition of French sovereignty over the entire territory, the end of the Ostdeutsche Landbewirtschaftung-gesellschaft, the disappearance of the demarcation line, economic relaxations and the release of prisoners. This memorandum was refused by Goering.
On December 10, 1941, Darlan met with Ciano in Turin. Ciano later wrote: “It is extraordinary to see this Admiral Darlan in front of me, I had no idea of the hatred he had for England, the victory of the Axis, he called it with all his wishes”.
Negative in terms of political concessions, the dialogue led to military conversations concerning the defence of the Empire. Since Rommel”s withdrawal to Tunisia could no longer be ruled out, negotiations were held with General Juin on 20 December in Berlin concerning possible French participation in the war in Africa. In the event that Rommel was rejected in Tunisia, French troops would have to intervene to fight alongside the Germans against British troops. This is what happened on November 8, 1942, when the Vichy generals fought against the Allied landing in Morocco, while at the same time handing over Tunisia to German-Italian troops without resistance.
For France, as with the Paris protocols, this was a co-belligerence agreement with the Germans, while the political concessions demanded of Germany in return were rejected. Darlan then negotiated compensations of a purely military nature, but which, by going far beyond the framework of the second Paris protocol, made war with the United States and the United Kingdom inevitable.
Hitler”s distrust of France ruled out any possibility of France being an ally of Germany, and Darlan”s proposals were, once again, a dead letter.
At the beginning of 1942, Hitler did not believe he needed the French anymore, because of the weakening of the British.
At the end of February 1942, Darlan”s policy was a complete failure. The Germans had broken off contact and would not resume it. The situation of the Navy continued to deteriorate. The ships in Toulon only had two full tanks of fuel oil, while the stocks in Morocco were already exhausted. If hostilities were to resume, the French fleet would be in the same situation as the Italian fleet: totally dependent on Germany for fuel and air cover.
Moreover, Darlan”s demands for concessions irritated the Germans, who demanded that Laval return to power. However, Darlan was not viewed any more favourably by the British, who reproached him for the Paris agreements and the delivery of equipment to the Iraqis and then to the German-Italians. He faced hostility from part of the Army and the entourage of the Head of State. He also suffered from a certain unpopularity, due to the deterioration of the living conditions of the French. On April 18, 1942, Pétain replaced Darlan with Laval.
Darlan negotiated his departure, and retained the role of commander-in-chief of the military forces. Not only was he responsible for the organization and employment of the armed forces, but also for promotions. Darlan tried to fight against bureaucracy and to rejuvenate the army”s cadres by lowering the age limits. He limited parades and the taking up of arms and wanted to reduce the number of staffs. He wanted to create a joint spirit. He attached great importance to the preparation of combined operations, but he was still Laval”s subordinate.
The temptation of a reversal
Darlan indulged in speculation about the future at a time when France was in danger of being plunged into conflict. Thus, from the end of 1941 onwards, according to those around him, Darlan made more and more unpleasant remarks about Germany. He let his son Alain and Admiral Raymond Fenard make unofficial contact with the American consul Robert Murphy. Both of them tried to convince President Roosevelt, through his consul in Algiers, that Darlan believed in the Allied victory.
On the evening of November 4, 1942, Darlan received a telephone call from Fénard in Algiers: his son Alain, who had been suffering from poliomyelitis, had been hospitalized in Algiers since October 15; his condition was desperate. On November 5, Darlan left Vichy in a hurry for Algiers. Escorted by his naval deputy and his chief of staff, he took his communication codes with him to Auphan (while leaving those of other admirals such as Jean de Laborde), as he had done in all his travels, even his personal ones, since he had become a minister and then commander-in-chief.
The allied landing in North Africa
During the night of November 7 to 8, not taking into account the absence of Giraud in Algiers, a group of Algerian resistance fighters led by Henri d”Astier de La Vigerie, in application of the Cherchell agreements, had 400 civilian volunteers led by reserve officers occupy the strategic points of Algiers and arrested the main generals. Thus, Darlan (who had unexpectedly come to the bedside of his son Alain, who was seriously ill) was arrested, along with Juin, the future commander-in-chief of the French expeditionary corps in Italy, by a group of students led by Bernard Pauphilet. Not knowing who these students were or for whom they were acting, the 14th Corps concentrated all its efforts on freeing its general officers so that the Allies, who had already landed unopposed, surrounded Algiers and obtained its surrender that very evening without bloodshed (unlike the other landing points where the Vichy forces had ordered the Allies to be repelled).
This daring coup de main meant that Darlan was given a message in Algiers by the American consul Murphy, who was General Weygand”s main contact, asking him to welcome the landed troops as friends, as a prisoner and not as an insider. Darlan, misinformed by his own services, did not believe that the Americans would have sufficient maritime means to intervene on the European side for at least a year. However, the British had joined forces with part of the Royal Navy. Faced with a fait accompli, he considered the landing as an aggression; as a prisoner, he saw Roosevelt”s request as blackmail. He thought of a coup d”état and arranged to send two messages to the Admiralty in Algiers, which was not controlled by Henri d”Astier”s group. At least one of these messages, written in his own hand (and kept), gave the order to the Admiralty to resist the Allies (this message was intercepted by the Resistance fighters). Finally, after being liberated in the morning with Juin by the Garde Mobile, he sent a telegram to Vichy at 8:00 a.m. requesting the intervention of the Luftwaffe, the German air force, against the Allied convoys, and organized the reconquest of the city against D”Astier”s group.
In power in Algiers
Because of General Giraud”s refusal to leave Gibraltar on November 8, 1942, for Algiers, where the Resistance fighters were counting on him, Darlan, after having surrendered to the Allies, found himself the only person in the spotlight. For the Americans, Murphy, Clark and Ryder, he became the only person likely to put an end to the fighting in Oran and Morocco, where his subordinates had welcomed the Allies with cannon fire, in the days following the landing. However, if the admiral of the fleet, caught in the trap, accepted a cease-fire for the Algiers region on the 8th, he refused for the next two days, despite the pressure and threats of General Clark, Eisenhower”s deputy, to order the suspension of arms in Morocco and in the whole of Algeria. He only decided to end the fighting on November 10 under threat.
Giraud, who arrived in Algiers on 9 November, after the battle, expecting to take command of the Allied forces, realized that the American game had been refocused around Darlan. On November 10, a telegram from Vichy disavowed Darlan and made General Charles Noguès Marshal Pétain”s representative in Africa. Under pressure from the Americans, a new command organization was set up in Africa: Darlan took on the title of High Commissioner for France in Africa, in the name of the “prevented Marshal”, while Giraud became head of the French armed forces. After finally ordering a cease-fire in Oran and Morocco, Darlan finally brought French North Africa into the fight against the Axis. Thanks to the support of Pierre Boisson, he also obtained the support of French West Africa.
Darlan”s rallying relieved the Vichy military leaders, who were aware that they would be defeated if resistance was prolonged. For the Allies, although Darlan”s rallying was viewed rather negatively by public opinion and viewed with suspicion by their generals, it saved time and lives. Moreover, the defeated Darlan granted the Allies even broader concessions than those agreed to by the Resistance fighters during the secret Cherchell agreements two weeks earlier. There remained the problem of the Toulon fleet. The Allies hoped for its rallying, above all to obtain its neutralization. The Allies also urged Darlan to order it to sail, although Darlan only wanted it to leave in the event of an invasion of the southern zone, as he stated several times on the 10th November. He knew that he had to confirm his legitimacy over the Vichy military authorities in Africa. Moreover, he had little chance of obtaining the support of the collaborationist Admiral Laborde (commander of the Toulon fleet), with whom he had a personal conflict, and who would only listen to Pétain. It was only on November 11, 1942 that Darlan decided, under pressure from the Allies, to send a message to Admiral de Laborde. Invoking the breach of the armistice and the Marshal”s lack of freedom, he invited the Commander-in-Chief to direct ships towards French West Africa, and not North Africa. The next day, Darlan renewed his appeal in the same terms. He was refused.
Following the 1940 scuttling orders (ordered by Darlan himself) in case a foreign power tried to seize French ships, the fleet was scuttled on November 27, 1942 in Toulon when the Germans invaded the free zone.
The French High Commission in North Africa was set up as an executive body and established its headquarters in the former summer palace of the dey. Henri d”Astier de La Vigerie assumed the position of Secretary of the Interior and Jacques Lemaigre Dubreuil that of Delegate to the United States. Although firmly disavowed by Vichy, Darlan still claimed to govern in the name of Pétain, declaring: “We all admitted that the Marshal was still our leader, but that this leader was morally imprisoned.
However, Darlan did not bother to repeal the most vexatious laws and measures of the Vichy regime, and political prisoners were still held in the concentration camps of the South. Justifying himself on the grounds of the military context in Tunisia, he refused to go back on the repeal of the Crémieux decree, and took the same wait-and-see attitude towards the demands of Ferhat Abbas concerning the emancipation of Muslims.
Darlan”s change of camp in November 1942 did not make it any easier for the French forces in North Africa to enter the war on the side of the Allies. Thus Roosevelt, ill-informed and concerned about Charles de Gaulle”s supposed dictatorial ambitions, preferred to prolong state continuity. However, Darlan”s position was precarious, due to a lack of real international recognition. The Anglo-Saxon governments also had to take into account the reaction of their public opinion, alerted by war correspondents. The absence of any democratization in North Africa, Darlan”s position and his collaborationist past with Vichy also made it impossible for the African Army to join forces with the Free French Forces. The Gaullists of the Combat group, led by René Capitant, protested against Darlan”s policy, distributing hostile leaflets with slogans such as “Darlan to the post” or “the admiral to the fleet”.
On December 24, 1942, Darlan was assassinated by a young student, Fernand Bonnier de La Chapelle, who had drawn straws with three of his comrades in arms (Othon Gross, Robert Tournier and Philippe Ragueneau). Arrested, he was judged in an expeditious manner, sentenced to death and executed.
Bonnier de La Chapelle was rehabilitated on December 21, 1945 by a decision of the Chamber of Revision of the Court of Appeal of Algiers, which judged that he had acted “in the interest of the liberation of France”.
Several historians (Arnaud de Chantérac, George E. Melton, Claude Huan) have also mentioned the involvement of the British secret service Special Operations Executive (SOE) in Darlan”s assassination.
Darlan was buried on April 29, 1964 in the military cemetery of Mers el-Kébir, near Oran, Algeria, where the sailors who perished in 1940 in the attack on the French fleet are buried. In April 2005, it was discovered that his grave, along with many graves of French sailors and the ossuary of the military cemetery, had been desecrated. The grave was redone along with those of the other deceased in the Mers-el-Kebir military cemetery in 2007, although the crosses were replaced by plaques on the ground.
Historical studies, essays, testimonials
Official reports of the actors of the putsch of November 8, 1942, in Algiers