Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Who whacked Admiral Darlan? My guess is that Winston Churchill ordered it

The Allies wanted him out of the way.


The more I read in the corners of World War II history (diaries, letters and such), the more I am persuaded that it was Churchill who ordered British operatives to kill Admiral Darlan in Algiers in December 1942.

My reading of the situation is that the British thought Ike had made a major mistake when he stepped in and elevated Darlan, a former leader of collaborationist France, to be leader of French North Africa. So, I think, Churchill had him killed, and then of course had the assassin executed quickly, to cover the tracks of British intelligence operatives. Churchill would have seen this as a way to fix the situation and bail out the Americans. Getting rid of Darlan cleared the way for the Casablanca conference the following month.

I mention this because I was struck by a passage in the diaries of Violet Asquith Bonham Carter, Churchill’s closest female friend for many decades. She had lunch with him at 10 Downing Street on January 6, 1943, a few days after Darlan died. She said the assassination of Darlan had made her Christmas. He replied, and said, with a smile, “I believe you would have done it yourself.” That strikes me close to being a wink and a nod.

Next I happened to read an even more obscure book, The War Diaries of Oliver Harvey, a forgettable minor British political figure. He wrote on November 16, 1942, that at a meeting that day with Churchill and Anthony Eden, “We all agreed that we must get rid of Darlan somehow.” That’s a loaded sentence. When Darlan was shot on December 24, Harvey wrote in his diary of his relief at seeing “the removal of this horrible quisling.”

What makes this a bit more chilling is that just three years earlier, in December 1939, Churchill had thrown a dinner in honor of Darlan, who was then the chief of the French navy.

Churchill may indeed have been doing the Americans a favor. Eisenhower later wrote that the closest he came to being relieved during World War II was for his handling of the Darlan situation.

Let the last testimony come from Churchill: “Darlan’s murder, however criminal, relieved the Allies of their embarrassment at working with him, and at the same time left them with all the advantages he had been able to bestow during the vital hours of the Allied landings.” Almost a self-justification, no?

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Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1