On this day, a pro-Free French assassin in Algeria kills Jean Francois Darlan, French admiral and collaborator in the Vichy government. He was 61.
Born on August 7, 1881, in Nerac, France, Darlan graduated from the French naval academy in 1902, and advanced quickly through the ranks, reaching the position of admiral of the fleet in June 1939. He was made commander in chief of the French navy two months later.
Upon the surrender of France to the German invaders in June of 1940, Darlan let it be known that he was inclined to sail the fleet to Great Britain, to keep it out of German hands. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill conceded, “…I would cheerfully crawl on my hands and knees for a mile if by doing so I could get him to bring that fleet of his into the circle of Allied forces.”
But it was not to happen. Darlan was quickly “bought off” by a power position: He was made navy minister and then supreme commander of all Vichy French military forces under Philippe Petain’s government. He became a collaborator with the German puppeteers (even passing on to the Germans sensitive U.S. military information that had landed in the French embassy in Washington, D.C.), and, to add insult to injury, ordering most of the French fleet to North Africa to avoid Allied capture. (The Royal Navy at Oran would nevertheless attack it shortly thereafter.)
In November 1942, when Anglo-American forces launched its North African campaign, Operation Torch, Darlan was in Algiers, Algeria, visiting his seriously ill son. General Dwight Eisenhower took advantage of Darlan’s proximity by ordering American diplomat Robert Murphy and Major General Mark Clark to convince Darlan to aid the Allies in their invasion (Darlan had hinted that he might switch his allegiance again in exchange for heavy financial aid for France from the United States). Darlan vacillated, in part because he still distrusted and disliked the British because of the attack on his fleet at Oran, but in light of the German invasion of France, which the Vichy government’s concessions were supposed to prevent, he eventually acquiesced. He ordered a Vichy-force ceasefire to permit the Allied landings in North Africa to move forward unopposed. Darlan finally signed an armistice with the Allies, folding his Vichy forces into the Free French military.
Nevertheless, Darlan was never fully trusted by the Free French; he was deemed too much of an opportunist. On Christmas Eve, 1942, he was shot dead by Bonnier de la Chapelle, a Charles de Gaulle follower who was training to be a British agent. Despite the help Darlan ultimately provided, the Allies rejoiced. “Darlan’s murder, however criminal, relieved the Allies of their embarrassment at working with him,” admitted Churchill.