Setting the Med Ablaze – Churchill’s Secret North African Base, Peter Dixon

Setting the Med Ablaze – Churchill’s Secret North African Base, Peter Dixon

The main subject of this book is SOE’s secret base in North Africa, code named Massingham, which was used as the HQ for SOE operations in southern Europe. This base was founded near Algiers late in 1942, and soon became surprisingly sizable. It wasn’t just an operational base, but also served as a training base, effectively reproducing SOE’s training setup in the UK although on a smaller scale.

We start with a few chapters looking at the build-up to the establishment of the base and the general background in North Africa, starting with Operation Torch and the SOE’s role in that invasion, then the early days of SOE’s involvement in North Africa. This was a somewhat farcical operation in which saw the agent involved betrayed by his French contact, who believed he was a German spy, handed over to the Vichy French authorities, shipped to France before escaping to Gibraltar sixteen months after starting his adventures. Next comes a look at the early American involvement, which was rather more effective and on a larger scale, helped by their neutral status which allowed them to post twelve consuls in French North Africa. The inevitable disputes between OSS and SOE over who should take the lead in North Africa and the nature of any cooperation is covered, as are SOE’s efforts to cooperate with the ground troops fighting in Tunisia. The complex politics of North Africa are also covered – an essential topic, as the assassination of Admiral Darlan cost the first commander of the base his post.

Massingham and SOE in general gathered an impressive collection of people. The base’s second commander, Douglas Dodds-Parker, was very well travelled, having visited Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, most of Europe, the USA and Canada, worked with Orde Wingate during the Ethiopian campaign and generally got on well with the Americans. Many of the other staff had similarly adventurous backgrounds. The base itself was staffed with British, American, French, Spanish and many other nationalities. The base was also split into two sections – Training and Operations – each of which gets a dedicated chapter.

Massingham’s first operation, a mission to Corsica, started on 30 December 1942. After that the base soon became very busy, with operations to southern France, Italy and the Mediterranean islands.  Four chapters are dedicated to the missions, starting with a look at operations on the islands. Sadly the first two operations that are detailed both end with the capture of most of the operatives, which then played into the deception game. One captured SOE operative even went on to play a significant role in arranging the Italian armistice!

The focus of this book isn’t on the individual missions themselves (although a number of sample missions are described in detail), but rather on the organisation behind them – Massingham itself, and its forward bases around the Mediterranean, how they interacted with other organisations (notably the American OSS) and the political minefields they had to work around (including the rival French factions of de Gaulle, Giraud and Darlan, or the Italian clash between long standing anti-fascists and the Badaglio government).  While we do get plenty of material on what SOE did in these areas, this book is most valuable for its examination of the ‘how’, making this book a valuable addition to the literature on SOE and the underground war (as well as being a very enjoyable read).

1 – The Prequel: Operation Torch
2 – Irregulars in North Africa
3 – Learning to Cooperate
4 – Springboard for Subversion
5 – The Training Base
6 – The Operations Base
7 – First Conquer the Islands
8 – Changing Sides
9 – Into Italy
10 – Southern France
11 - Conclusion

Author: Peter Dixon
Edition: Paperback
Pages: 298
Publisher: Cloudshill Press
Year: 2020

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