1943: “Native parachutists” in Morocco

Add comment January 4th, 2014 Headsman

LONDON, Jan. 4 (U.P.) — The Morocco radio tonight quoted an announcement from General Henri Honore Giraud’s headquarters that an unspecified number of “native” parachutists, dropped in North Africa from German planes, had been executed for trying to swing local populations to the Axis cause. [Vichy North Africa had only recently gone over to the Allies -ed.]

The “fifth column” chutists found “only rare complicity,” the announcement said.

“The natives and their accomplices have all been arrested and executed immediately after court-martial,” it continued. “Military authorities contributed efficiently to the arrest of these enemy agents.

“Large rewards have been distributed to all those who helped capture the culprits.”

(Source: New York Times, Jan. 5, 1943.)

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Germany,Guerrillas,History,Known But To God,Mass Executions,Morocco,Occupation and Colonialism,Shot,Soldiers,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1941: Alfredo Castoldi, German spy in Vichy Algiers

Add comment November 3rd, 2013 Headsman

Simon Kitson‘s engrossing The Hunt for Nazi Spies: Fighting Espionage in Vichy France makes the case that Vichy France — and in particular, 1940-42 Vichy, before Operation Torch triggered the outright German occupation of Vichy France — had an active counterespionage program working against German spies.

Once recruitment in the German secret services was suspected, evidence was needed to carry out an arrest. The general rule was to delay arresting suspects so as to be able to tail them to find out who their contacts were and the exact nature of their activities. This is what happened with Alfredo Castoldi, an Italian working for the Germans. Castoldi made the acquaintance of someone named Perez in a bar and tried to convince him to provide military information. Perez pretended to accept but the next day he went to tell all to the local police chief. The police did not arrest Castoldi right away but asked Perez to maintain contact with him and to earn his trust and find out the nature of his intentions and his network. The evidence acquired in this way was so convincing that on 3 November 1941, at 7:30 in the morning, Castoldi was executed by a French army firing squad in Algiers.

Castoldi was not an outlier. Several dozen German spies may have been shot by Vichy France in the 1940-42 period. Kitson notes that it is

difficult to ascertain the exact number of German spies sentenced by Vichy military courts who were actually executed by the firing squads of the French army. [Paul] Paillole claims there were forty-two of them. In research for the present study, I found formal proof of eight such executions, but Paillole’s figure seems credible for two reasons. Firstly, during the postwar trial of Marshal Philippe Petain, Ernest Lagarde, the former director of political affairs in the Foreign Affairs Ministry, claimed there were about thirty such executions in 1941, which does not exclude a total of forty-two for the years 1940-42. Secondly, there is a register of Petain’s decisions concerning appeals for clemency from individuals condemned to death for activities ranging from Communism to army mutinies to espionage. In espionage cases, the registry does not specify for which country a particular spy was working, but it would seem that, after cross-checking the names listed with other sources used for the present study, there were twenty-seven confirmed cases of Axis spies having their appeal for clemency refused. A further twenty-three cases in which clemency was refused also appear to involve Axis spies. Of course, in a handful of instances where the appeal for clemency was rejected, executions may still not have been carried out as a result of the invasion of the southern zone by the Germans, which brought a sudden end to official executions. This registry nevertheless adds credibility to Paillole’s estimate.

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1942: Fernand Bonnier de La Chapelle, Darlan’s assassin

3 comments December 26th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1942, just two days after he had assassinated Admiral Francois Darlan, Fernand Bonnier de La Chapelle was shot by the Vichy army in Algiers.

Despite its shorthand reputation as a Nazi puppet, Vichy France — especially in 1940-42 — was a more nuanced animal that’s enjoyed increased study of late. Vichy controlled southern France under the obvious pressure of the next-door German occupation and effected state collaboration with Berlin including deportations, but it also maintained diplomatic relations with the U.S. Vichy France even shot German spies.

Vichy was one contender among several for political legitimacy in the aftermath of France’s disastrous 1940 defeat at German hands. The most obvious (and here, topical) rival was de Gaulle’s Free French.


Appropriately, the classic film Casablanca premiered in November 1942, featuring Claude Rains as the unprincipled Vichy Captain Renault. The film’s pro-Free French, anti-Vichy slant was not, however, representative of American foreign policy at the time.

This was the background when, in 1942, the US spearheaded Operation Torch to invade Vichy-controlled French North Africa. “This is not the end,” Churchill epigrammed of the Torch landings. “It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”* (Correction: Churchill actually said this in reference to the November 1942 Battle of El Alamein, as a very gracious comment observes.)

At the time of that operation, Admiral Darlan happened to be in Algiers. He was the former number two man in the Vichy government, but also a guy whose cooperation with the Nazis had been half-hearted … which is the reason he was the former number two man.

Darlan nevertheless remained the chief of the Vichy armed forces, which meant that it was worth the Torch commanders’ while to come to an arrangement with him when Darlan proved amenable to cooperation.

They cut that deal. Darlan shut down armed resistance and took Vichy North Africa over to the Allies’ side. (He had, indeed, hinted previously to American diplomats that he was prepared to switch sides; see Arthur Funk, “Negotiating the ‘Deal with Darlan'” in Journal of Contemporary History, April 1973.) In exchange, the Allies installed him as High Commissioner of France for North and West Africa — big man on campus for French North Africa.

Like all good compromises, it satisfied nobody.

De Gaulle was enraged: a Vichy official remained in charge of a Vichy state now under Allied auspices. Would Allied recognition set Darlan up to direct France’s postwar direction?

Equally pissed by the defection, Hitler triggered the German contingency plan to occupy Vichy France.† This is why the “especially in 1940-1942″ proviso above: after Operation Torch, Vichy France had no independent military muscle, and was significantly more beholden to Nazi Germany.

Back in North Africa, we finally come to our date’s principal.

A 20-year-old student of monarchist and anti-fascist political proclivities, Fernand Bonnier de La Chapelle (English Wikipedia entry | French) decided with a couple of friends to cut the Gordian political knot that Darlan’s adoption had created.

Bonnier de La Chapelle drew the short straw (literally, they drew straws) for the privilege/responsibility of murdering the Vichy admiral.

Officially, the young man acted alone. Unofficially, there’s been no end of speculation as to the secret intrigues at work. Nobody’s really clear on exactly how murdering Darlan was supposed to advance the gunman’s supposed agenda. And the Vichy French disposed of the killer with suspicious haste.

Just after lunch on December 24, Fernand Bonnier de La Chapelle surprised Darlan upon the latter’s return to his study and shot him through the mouth and torso at point-blank range. He was arrested attempting to flee.

The very next evening, he was condemned by a tribunal at Algiers. There was already a coffin on order before that body gaveled into session.

For some reason, the condemned thought his perceived service to the nation would out. “They will not shoot me. I have liberated France,” he assured his confessor. “The bullets will be blank cartridges.” They weren’t. Churchill recorded that Bonnier de La Chapelle was “surprised to be shot.”

Darlan was laid to rest later that morning at a dry-eyed requiem service. One British intelligence officer remembered that Darlan’s “murder fell like a stone into a small pond and the ripples were only brief. It was as if Darlan had never been.” (Source for the quotes in the last two paragraphs)

Henri Giraud, a French general who escaped German custody and took refuge in Vichy France — Vichy refusing to return him to the Germans, who openly intended to kill him — succeeded Darlan’s command of the now-Allied-aligned French North African forces and maintained the objectionable Vichy institutions. He joined the Allied Casablanca Conference a few weeks later. Giraud had already secretly arranged with the Allies to take exactly this position and had repaired to North Africa in anticipation of the invasion before being aced out by Darlan.

Giraud’s Vichy North African government gradually increased cooperation with de Gaulle’s Free French; the two eventually co-founded the French Committee of National Liberation, which de Gaulle, of course, eventually took control of.

In 1945, a postwar appeals court posthumously reversed Bonnier de La Chapelle’s conviction — on the grounds that he’d pulled the trigger “in the interest of liberation of France.”

* Stalin, whose Red Army was then fighting the Wehrmacht tooth and claw at Stalingrad, begged to differ. He’d been imploring the western allies to open a second front, and was none too impressed with their calculation that they weren’t ready to invade continental Europe in 1942. “A man who was not prepared to take risks could not win a war,” Stalin griped to Churchill.

** One knock-on effect of Operation Torch: the Germans reinforced North Africa against the Allies’ imminent push. It was in this campaign that future Hitler almost-assassin Claus von Stauffenberg lost a hand and an eye, leading to his transfer back to the Berlin desk job that would give him his opportunity to try to kill the Fuhrer.

† This resulted in Vichy France’s gesture of resistance, scuttling the Toulon fleet to keep it out of German hands … although this also irritated de Gaulle, who wanted the fleet to defect to North Africa instead.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,History,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Shot,Wartime Executions

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1944: Georges Suarez, collaborationist editor

Add comment November 9th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1944, the restored French Republic shot the editor of the collaborationist newspaper Aujourd’hui (Today).

Suarez‘s (linked page in French) writings (French again) had endorsed the German occupation and called for steps even beyond what the Germans were prepared to take: the wholesale taking of Anglo hostages as proof against Allied bombing raids, for instance.

His trial and execution were the first of many suffered by pro-Vichy writers and journalists condemned by the vengeful free French courts for their part in the Nazi occupation, especially in the first months after liberation. The public intellectuals of the wartime government were, as a matter of fact, in the dock faster than the government itself.

Alice Kaplan, writing of the more infamous collaborationist writer Robert Brasillach who would follow Suarez’ footsteps in a few weeks, observes:

Writers were easy to try. Their files, crumbling now, are rather thin: clippings of their articles from the collaborationist press, underlined in red and blue ink with an occasional commentary; a report by the prefecture of police outlining their political affiliations and behavior during the Occupation; a list of witnesses called by the defense and the prosecution; interviews of the accused, before the trial, going over the charges against him; letters from friends — and enemies — sent to the judge before the trial. It was easier to organize a case against a journalist than a case against a common-law criminal or a financial collaborator. The bulk of the evidence was in newspaper clippings, quickly compiled.

“Treason is a matter of dates,” Suarez’ lawyer averred, channeling Talleyrand. But at this early date of freedom, not six months after Omaha Beach had been wrenched from German hands, there was much less sympathy for the philosophic vagaries of history than some subsequent writers would enjoy — and there was a good deal of indictable behavior:

Whether they faced the charge of treason or of national indignity, the writers were accused of having espoused numerous elements of Nazi ideology: anti-communism; anti-Semitism; support for the releve (the system designed to send French workers to Germany in exchange for French POWs); support for the Milice (Vichy’s police force); support for the German and French troops fighting the Soviets on the Eastern front; attacks against de Gaulle and the Resistance; participation in collaborationist organizations; trips to Germany during the Occupation, in particular to the International Writers’ Congress at Weimar in 1941.

-Philip Watts, Allegories of the Purge

In addition to its noteworthy history in the postwar purge of journalists, Kaplan reports that Suarez’s trial may also have been the first in French history for which women were eligible to serve as jurors — although none of the women in the jury pool were ultimately seated, and the milestone seems not to have been widely noticed even at the time.

The execution itself was badly botched: Suarez is said to have survived both the initial fusillade and a second barrage from the firing squad before a third round finished him off.

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1945: Robert Brasillach, intellectual traitor

3 comments February 6th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1945, and notwithstanding a partial outcry in French literary circles, fascist intellectual and Vichy collaborator Robert Brasillach was shot for treason in Montrouge.

Novelist, journalist and llitterateur Robert Brasillach (English Wikipedia entry | French) was the “James Dean of French fascism,” fashionable apostle of the interwar far-right movement Action Française.

A proper James Dean dies young, which fate was supplied courtesy of Brasillach’s editorship of the anti-semitic rag Je Suis Partout (“I Am Everywhere”) and enthusiastic support of the Vichy government.

Inasmuch as his collaboration had been in the form of ideas propagated, Brasillach’s case engaged the French polity in the challenging question of whether “intellectual crime” — and even “intellectual treason” — could exist categorically.

Given another year, when occupation was not so fresh a memory and the Nazis were no longer knocking at the door, the puzzle would probably not have been a life and death one.

But then, ideas are sometimes life and death matters themselves, and nowhere is that more true than in France.

Many anti-fascist intellectuals appealed to de Gaulle for Brasillach’s life — many, but not all. Death penalty opponent Albert Camus signed the petition for clemency; Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir refused.

Between fellow-feeling among the literary set, ideological enmity, and the searing experience of the occupation only just lifted lay a test for the conscience of many a French thinker — aphorized by the very words de Gaulle would use in turning aside the appeal.

“Talent is a responsibility.”

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,France,History,Infamous,Intellectuals,Notable Jurisprudence,Occupation and Colonialism,Shot,Treason,Wartime Executions

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