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Posted on Jun 12, 2007 in Books and Movies, Front Page Features

FDR’s 12 Apostles – Book Review

By Duncan Rice

cover.jpgBook Review: FDR’s 12 Apostles, The Spies Who Paved the Way for the Invasion of North Africa
Hal Vaughan, Lyons Press

Operation Torch, the Anglo-American invasion of North Africa, was not just a great undertaking of logistics and strategic planning. Eighteen months of intelligence gathering and behind the scenes deal brokering went on in North Africa prior to the invasion. FDR’s 12 Apostles is a narrative of these activities, undertaken by American Robert Murphy and the ‘vice-consuls’ under him.

The book is exceptionally well researched and referenced. You may want to keep a bookmark in the endnote section to help you refer to it.  It adds some interesting facts. The research comes from a wide variety of sources. These include archival work, declassified foreign records, correspondence, and interviews. The memoirs of Ridgway Brewster Knight, one of FDR’s twelve, were also used.

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FDR’s twelve were a diverse group. Their chief, Robert Murphy, was a career diplomat but the others came from backgrounds ranging from a Coca-Cola salesman and Paris playboy to an Annapolis graduate and hero of WWI. Murphy began his Foreign Service career in 1917. He had believed that the US should enter WWI but was himself declared unfit for military service. Wanting to somehow be involved Murphy joined the Foreign Service at the age of 23. He later described himself as “a diplomat among warriors.”

The book moves quickly through Murphy’s work as charge of the US embassy at Vichy and onto his preliminary orders from Roosevelt. Murphy was to prepare a report, for Roosevelt’s eyes only, on the economic situation and attitudes of various groups in French North Africa. The groups to be examined included the French bureaucracy, French businesses, as well as the Arab and Berber people. Murphy also acted as a contact for General Weygand while probing his authority, plans, and examining what the United States could do to encourage him. Robert Murphy was Roosevelt’s eyes and ears in the French North African Colonies.

The personalities and recruitment of the other agents is touched on. Their activities under Murphy are well described. With twelve American agents and a large number of people they deal with and who their activities effect the reader may have trouble keeping track of them all. You may want to take note of the important figures as you read so that you will recognise them when they turn up again. The agents’ activities ranged from simple information gathering at North African ports, to the setting up of clandestine radio operations, to a disastrous attempt at evacuating recently escaped Polish soldiers from North Africa. Some of their more important work involved acting as liaisons. This ranged from passing information in diplomatic pouches to meeting with various men to influence them and gather information. An entire chapter is given to a meeting at Cherchel between delegations headed by General Mark Clark, French commander General Charles Emmanuel Mast, and Robert Murphy to discuss Allied operations in North Africa. The delegations arrived by road and submarine. It was particularly tense because of an interruption by the chief of police. Over a few hours Clark and his men made a number of attempts to evacuate back to the submarine. The narrative is at times tense and at times almost comical. On returning the next day, to recover incriminating items that Clark’s men had cast off in order to expedite their evacuation, Murphy was recorded as saying, “…I wish I had a little more experience in planning revolutions and overthrowing governments.”

FDR’s 12 Apostles talks a lot about the activities and movements of the American agents. The reader will find a lot of satisfying ‘cloak and dagger.’ However, I would have liked to be given more information on the effects of their work. For example, what information was in the diplomatic pouches, what intelligence was given over the radio sets, and how did it effect plans for the invasion? There are details of what discussions went on, at Cherchel for example, but I would have liked to know in more detail how the invasion planners and the French commanders acted on it. The Cherchel meeting’s arrangement, the movement to it, its interruption, and the evacuation of Clark’s men is given more emphasis than what was discussed there. The discussion is not ignored. It included French requirements for armaments and materiel, the need for American liaison at French commands, French intelligence on locations of strategic instalments, and suggested invasion plans. But I would have liked the author to be more specific. What were the effects of this meeting on Operation Torch? Did the French suggestions for parachute drop locations effect the plans for Torch? What elements of the French plan for American landings influenced invasion planning and how?

FDR’s 12 Apostles is well researched from an excellent variety of sources and well annotated.  It speaks in general terms about Operation Torch. There is some discussion of how the American agents’ activities effected invasion planning and outcomes but I would have liked to see this in more detail and with more specificity. There are a lot of players to keep track of and the book warrants careful reading in places to keep up. The real scope of the book deals with the movement and activities of the twelve American agents who were instrumental in gathering intelligence and gaining support for the invasion. While not delving heavily into any analysis or causality it’s an excellent narrative and well worth reading for its insights into the processes of intelligence gathering and deal making that where necessary for Operation Torch to succeed.

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