The Battle of Algiers

Raoul_Salan Wiki Commons
General Raoul Salan. Ironically the last person a militant pied noir should have been trying to Bazooka. Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

The entire Suez Crisis was another sign of just how invested the French were and continued to be in the Algerian war, which continued right on escalating in bizarre ways. In January 1957, feeling that the current General Salan wasn’t fully on their side, someone fired a bazooka round at his window. Salan survived, though one of his aides wasn’t so fortunate. While the hilariously named Bazooka Affair was the work of anxious pieds noirs, it is also one of history’s more conspiratorial moments. Figures like future French Prime Minister Michel Debre were accused of orchestrating the attempt. The bazooka round was a sign that in their fear the pieds noirs were lashing out. Elements in the army were worried as well, and in the first tremor of the coming political crisis, one general was transferred from Algeria to Germany after a tentative plot to seize the territory was uncovered. In fairness, the FLN was giving the French plenty of reasons to be angry.

Abbane Ramdane and the ALN hadn’t been idle during the Suez Crisis. At the September 1956 Soummam Conference, Ramdane had codified the use of indiscriminate terrorism as a viable weapon by the FLN, and he had the perfect place in mind to unleash it. Following a pair of public executions by the French in the summer of 1956, the capital of Algiers had become the site of regular bombings and shootings, coordinated by 26 year old Ali Ammar, alias Ali la Pointe. Ammar scattered his forces across the city, restricting how much could be lost if a cell was exposed. They would never make a stand or try to actually conquer the city, but daily they reminded Algiers of their presence.[1] In response, the new Algerian Governor-General Robert Lacoste handed control of the city over to General Jacques Massu and his paratroopers, including Philippeville veteran and intelligence officer Paul Aussaresses. They would soon acquire a fearsome reputation. Caught in the middle between bombings and mass torture and sweep operations, the civilian populace of the city was forced to endure what became known as the Battle of Algiers.

Ali La Pointe. Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

The Battle was an ugly duel of wits between Massu and Ammar. When Ammar used a mix of coercion and popular support to stage a general strike late January 1957, Massu’s paratroopers went door to door and literally forced the Muslim Algerian quarter (the Casbah) to reopen their shops at gunpoint. When Ammar’s men went to ground in their safe houses, Aussaresses built an intelligence network with a Muslim army veteran on literally every city block. And to ensure that they finally dredged Ammar’s forces from cover, Massu and his paratroopers tortured and killed thousands of Algerians. Exact tallies are difficult to come by, as bodies were incinerated, or literally dumped into the sea in a bid to cover their tracks from the public. Yet the campaign began to garner results. Hundreds of arrests were successfully made, explosives, detonators, and weapons caches were discovered. After two months, one of the FLN’s political leaders Larbi Ben m’Hidi was captured, hauled to a discreet farmhouse, tortured to death, and then hung in a way that was passed off as a suicide by Aussaresses.[2] It wasn’t as if the men involved couldn’t see the sick historical irony in their methods. Paul Teitgen, a former internee at Dachau found himself signing the death warrants of more than three thousand prisoners. After three years of agonized silence he spoke out and said, “I would never make such a claim if I had not, during recent visits to the internment camps in Paul-Cazelles and Beni Messous, recognized on certain internees the profound traces of physical cruelty and torture that…I was personally subjected to in the basements of the Gestapo in Nancy”.[3]

Larbi_Ben_M'hidi_-_1957 Aglerian Ministery of the Moudjahidine
Ben M’Hidi, when he was still in the custody of the military rather than the paratrooper’s intelligence wing. Photo Credit: The Algerian Ministry for the Moudjahidine.

There is no question that Mollet and his government were anything less than full partners to Massu’s war crimes on the ground. Mollet himself had even gone to the United Nations to stave off international voting on the war’s conduct. Papers like Le Monde were censored, and French voices were curiously muted. Perhaps there was concern that such statements would not be seen as Supporting the Troops. Only time would finally overcome the inertia of censorship and social discomfort, prompting a national discussion on torture that has continued to this day. Perhaps also there was a sense that like Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the French had already come so far and spilled so much innocent blood that to turn back now would be as bad as going forwards.

Regardless, the war would have to press on without Mollet at the helm. Physically exhausted by the strain of just over a year in power, Mollet let his government collapse as doubts swirled about the financial cost in the war. In his 14 months in power, he had set the stage for France’s growing role in what would become the European Union, presided over the first tentative steps towards decolonization, bolstered France’s domestic energy production with nuclear investments, built up the welfare state, given Israel some of the know-how to build a nuclear weapon, and enabled some horrific crimes against humanity in his war with the FLN.

Battle of Algiers Wiki Commons
The Battle of Algiers. Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

By June 9, 1957 Ali la Pointe and the ALN cells in Algiers staged a major attack, bombing the pieds noirs Casino Dance Hall. The blast was horrific, killing ten and mangling another 80.[4] The outrage prompted a vicious raid on the Casbah by the European community, and led Massu to act. City wide sweeps escalated, and in a first sign that the FLN was not as invincible as it let on, many fighters began to defect. Massu’s paratroopers reinserted them into their cells, using them as the thin wedge to crack open each portion of Ammar’s operation. By October Ali La Pointe was surprised in his safe house and killed in an explosion. The Battle for Algiers was a resounding French victory, but the stain it left on everyone involved would not wash out easily.

Algiers had also scarred the FLN. It was growing ever harder to blend in with the Algerian population. There were informants everywhere, and in safer villages there was always the chance that the French air force might come over and simply napalm the place. Nor was it easy to get help or information from their allies. The Moroccan and Tunisian borders were now seeded with land mines, and in more accessible locations they had been blocked off with electric fences. Under increased pressure, the FLN had fallen into a power struggle, and Ramdane Abbane was strangled to death in yet another off road farmhouse. Fortunately for the murderous colonels responsible, it was easy to say that Abbane had simply been shot by the French. Leadership was now divided between men like Abbas, who had inherited the role as the FLN’s external leaders after the French arrested much of the early group,[5] and men like Houari Boumediene, who was an on the ground commander and subsequently the president of Algeria. In the end, the military figures would win out, in a strange contrast to the events that were beginning to unfold in France.

The Algerian war had become a truly ugly spot for France internationally, and the increasing pressure to reach a settlement was making many of its army officers jumpier than they had been. Already in February 1958, the air force had pursued their targets across the Tunisian border, and had bombed the village of Sakiet. While the French attempted to defend the strike on a civilian and foreign target from the once again furious Eisenhower, the thought of international mediation prompted dark talk in Algeria. Fear among the pieds noirs and the army especially led many to ponder more direct action to keep the government on their side. When it became clear in May 1958 that the next Prime Minister Pierre Pflimlin was at least open to starting the peace process, some in the army began to more from talk to action.

[1] As many had before him, Ramdane and other FLN leaders considered the shock of civilian casualties equivalent to military losses. The jury is still out on whether such grim arithmetic holds up.

[2] Defiant to the end, M’hidi even won the grudging respect of his paratrooper captors by singing the partisan song of the French Resistance.

[3] Evans.

[4] The bombing made international headlines, which, with the hindsight of fifty years, really should have thought through which story paired well with vacation advertisements.

[5] A funny little detail on its own. Much of the FLN’s leadership had been en route to Morocco for a conference when the French had the flight forced down in Algeria on October 22nd, 1956.


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